02/15/2011 3:17PM

California Horse Racing Board set to decide on fall race meet

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ARCADIA, Calif. – The California Horse Racing Board is expected to decide Thursday who will operate a six-week autumn meeting in Southern California this year, and a new plan discussed behind the scenes in recent weeks could lead to a change from the structure of the last 40 years.

The dates have been traditionally operated by the Oak Tree Racing Association – from 1969 to 2009 at Santa Anita and at Hollywood Park last year. Oak Tree has a contract to conduct its meeting at Hollywood Park this year, but Santa Anita officials are seeking to conduct a meeting under its own management.

Last fall, when racing dates are traditionally awarded each year, the racing board did not assign dates for a six-week period from Sept. 28 to Nov. 6.

According to a person familiar with the negotiations who requested anonymity, a plan has been discussed that would involve Santa Anita hosting the meeting and making a cash contribution to Oak Tree, which has a not-for-profit structure, to continue its charitable work.

Oak Tree officials told the racing board last fall that its organization has donated $27 million to racing-related charities in the last 40 years and that the absence of such an organization would create a philanthropic void in the sport.

Oak Tree executive vice president Sherwood Chillingworth declined to discuss the racing dates issue Monday. “I feel it’s more important to discuss it in front of the board,” he said.

Hollywood Park president Jack Liebau said Tuesday that he hoped that Oak Tree would receive the dates to run at Hollywood Park but did not elaborate on any ongoing discussions.

“I understand there are a lot of things going on but I know not what they are,” he said.

Last fall, Liebau said that Oak Tree deserved the fall 2011 dates “for what they’ve done in California.”

Oak Tree operated a fall meeting at Santa Anita from 1969 until 2009, but the association’s lease with Santa Anita’s parent company, MI Developments, was voided last May after Santa Anita’s previous parent company, Magna Entertainment, declared bankruptcy. Last summer, Oak Tree and MI Developments agreed to have Oak Tree run at Santa Anita in 2010 until horsemen’s groups united in opposition in August, citing concerns over the condition of Santa Anita’s synthetic main track.

As a result, a rapid sequence of events led Oak Tree to move its meeting to Hollywood Park last fall. Santa Anita has since replaced its synthetic track with a sand-and-clay surface.

The 2010 Oak Tree at Hollywood Park meeting averaged $7,198,000 in all-sources handle, according to a statement released at the conclusion of the meeting. The 2009 Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting had an average handle of $10.5 million, a figure greatly enhanced because the association hosted the Breeders’ Cup that year.

At a racing board meeting last September, Oak Tree officials argued that it should conduct its 2011 meeting at Hollywood Park for the second consecutive year. Santa Anita officials, citing expected higher attendance and handle figures, stated they should operate the dates to maximize revenue for the sport. The racing board tabled the issue.

Santa Anita, led by chairman Frank Stronach, has sought the opportunity to increase racing dates in recent years, a position the track maintains.

“I would hope that Santa Anita would be successful,” track president George Haines said Sunday.