11/05/2003 12:00AM

Canceled Las Palmas raises concern


ARCADIA, Calif. - The decision of the Oak Tree Racing Association last week to cancel Sunday's Grade 2, $200,000 Las Palmas Handicap at Santa Anita is being criticized by nationally prominent trainers who intended to run horses in the race. They said the cancellation was a bad precedent specifically and spoke generally to a wider crisis in California racing.

"It's terrible to cancel a race you advertise in the condition book," said trainer Christophe Clement on Wednesday from New York. Clement said he had planned on sending Grade 1 winner Dress to Thrill to the Las Palmas.

"I had been been pointing the filly for the race for the last month and a half," he said. "I would be very reluctant to include plans for stakes from Santa Anita in the future. This sends a very negative message."

Southern California racing officials could not recall another time that a graded stakes race had been canceled here.

Despite playing host to the Breeders' Cup on Oct. 25, Oak Tree's business has declined this season. In addition, the high cost of workers' compensation insurance in California has forced some trainers to leave the state. Field sizes are down, and so, in turn, is overall mutuel handle, which funds purses. In addition to the Las Palmas being canceled, there have been across-the-board purse cuts, approximately 10 percent, for day-to-day racing for the last part of the meet.

"The workers' compensation situation is bad, but something like this is worse," said trainer Bobby Frankel, who said he had intended to have at least one runner in the Las Palmas. "We need to get horses brought in here. We need owners to send horses here. How are you going to be able to bring in horses when you are canceling Group 2 races? You're chasing people out of here. You're doing New York and Kentucky a favor."

Frankel took exception to Oak Tree's decision to raise the purse by $100,000 for the opening-day Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap but not to do something similar to salvage the Las Palmas. "They give $100,000 to Azeri but cancel a Group 2 race?" Frankel said. "Oak Tree is supposed to be a nonprofit. They should bite the bullet. It's like they're saying, 'Now that the Breeders' Cup is over, [too bad] you all.' "

Sherwood Chillingworth, Oak Tree's executive vice president, said the economics of the meeting have changed since the time the Lady's Secret was run.

"We contributed to the Lady's Secret on the first day of the meet when we expected a big meet, but since then we have significantly overpaid our purses, and since we overpaid last year, that didn't seem wise," Chillingworth said. "We thought we would have a good meet, but whether it's been the heat, the fires, the bus strike, or the small fields, we've had to take corrective action."

Chillingworth admitted to some second-guessing since announcing the cancellation, in light of the potential field for the Las Palmas. "If we knew then what we know now, the horses who were going to be entered, we might have done something different," he said.

The purse cuts were enacted by Oak Tree in concert with the Thoroughbred Owners of California, which by law must approve purse contracts with racetracks. Don Valpredo, a TOC director and a member of its purse committee, said the TOC felt it had little choice when Oak Tree presented the proposed purse cut soon after the Breeders' Cup.

"At that late date, what does the TOC do - what choices did we have?" Valpredo said. "We had to accept what Oak Tree gave us."