05/18/2010 11:00PM

Beyond the breakups


Ron Charles, in his role as president of Santa Anita Park, boarded a flight from Los Angeles last Friday headed for Baltimore. He was flying first class, but even so he was delighted to discover that he would have interesting company and more than plenty of elbow room for the hours ahead. Martin Garcia was in the next seat.

"What a delightful young man," Charles said of the jockey. "Bright, and very inquisitive. He wasn't the least bit shy about asking all sorts of questions about the racing business. We went through the papers and talked about the things written about him getting the mount on Lookin At Lucky in the Preakness. There was one comment that said the biggest minus for the colt was 'the rider switch.' I didn't show him that one, although I'm not sure it would have bothered him very much."

In terms of timing, it was an odd intersection of two guys who work in the same business. Garcia, 25, was on his way to climb the tallest mountain of his burgeoning career. Charles, 58, would be a witness to Garcia's Preakness success, and then, the following afternoon, he would fly to Toronto and resign from a job that, at least on paper, should have been the best executive position in racing.

There were very public firings behind them both. Garcia picked up the choice Preakness mount because trainer Bob Baffert and principal owner Mike Pegram decided that Garrett Gomez was the Jonah on the troubled ship Lookin At Lucky and threw him overboard. Charles had just been handed the last straw in his increasingly dysfunctional relationship with Santa Anita's ownership group, Magna International Developments, which had terminated its agreement with the Oak Tree Racing Association. The announcement was made while Charles was in the air.

Gomez, reigning four-time national champion, did nothing blatant to lose his job on Lookin At Lucky, unless he can be held responsible for drawing the 13-hole in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the No. 1 post for the Kentucky Derby, or for the fact that the colt was dead short when he ran in the Santa Anita Derby because of time lost due to a minor injury suffered in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

But just as ball team owners fire managers instead of the starting rotation or a $50 million shortstop in a slump, racehorse owners and trainers tend to view jockeys as the expendable component in the operation. Jockeys, of course, are well rewarded when everything clicks, so don't bother with any pity parties. And one jock's firing is always another's opportunity, to be seized as Garcia did in the Preakness when he and Lookin At Lucky got a reasonable draw and a fair shake.

For Baffert to insist Gomez was not "fired," but that things just needed to be shaken up a little, summons memories of President Clinton's famous definition of "is." Gomez, whose admirable portfolio still does not contain a Triple Crown event, was fired from the horse who would have won him one.

But a prime rider like Gomez, though, is a portable commodity. He will flourish no matter where he rides. Firing the Oak Tree Racing Association is a whole different deal.

Fired is not precisely what happened to Oak Tree. In fact, MID let float numbers that it would like Oak Tree to pay for the privilege of using Santa Anita, but it was an offer easily refused. For a more accurate depiction of the current relationship, turn to the movie "Office Space" and behold the hellish treatment of cubicle worker bee Milton Waddams by his boss, Bill Lumburgh.

"I told Bill that if they move my desk one more time, I'm quitting," poor Milton told a colleague. "Because they've moved my desk four times already this year and I used to be over by the window, and I could see the squirrels."

Oak Tree's identity is densely woven with the image of Santa Anita Park, which just celebrated its 75th anniversary. The Oak Tree meet has been a part of the Santa Anita scene for 41 years. This would qualify as a long-term relationship, that had been maintained through a variety of different ownerships, including MID's bankrupt predecessor, Magna Entertainment.

Sometimes a landlord asks so much that a tenant has no choice but to leave. Oak Tree already pays Santa Anita between $4 million and $5 million in for its four to five weeks of racing, plus management costs. At that rate of return, you would think Santa Anita's owner, whoever it is, would want to turn the whole place over to the Oak Tree group, sit back and rake in the rent.

Not Frank Stronach, chairman of MID, who has long been on record as being distrustful of "clubby" racing groups. His lament dates back to the days when he was not welcomed into the arms of the Ontario Jockey Club of Canada, his adopted country. He sees Oak Tree as one of these, which is a stretch, since this particular "club" includes a trainer, two vets, an electrical parts wholesaler, an insurance exec, and a real estate developer specializing in mobile home parks. Sounds more like a bunch of guys who worked hard for a living in order to enjoy, and help, the racing game they love.

Oak Tree is a club that anyone should admire, if only for its charitable works and its island of stability in uncertain seas. Were Oak Tree be forced to set up shop at either Hollywood Park or Del Mar, this would have the effect of turning back the clock, in a bad way. A relocated Oak Tree would be New Coke, a hard sell, and play havoc with what little brand identity is left to horse racing in Southern California.

It is Stronach's avowed intention to shake up the California racing calendar and remake it in Santa Anita's overriding favor. He has every right to try and sell his plan. But sometimes when you shake things they break, and not only in Hemingway's "the world breaks every one and afterward many are strong in the broken places."

If Frank Stronach breaks Oak Tree, he will be breaking something already very strong and very good.