08/19/2010 4:37PM

CHRB nixes Oak Tree at Santa Anita

Benoit & Associates
Santa Anita's Pro-Ride main track will be replaced with dirt, but not in time for the track to host the Oak Tree meeting.

DEL MAR, Calif. – The California Horse Racing Board denied a request Thursday from the Oak Tree Racing Association to conduct an autumn meeting at Santa Anita after representatives of the Thoroughbred Owners of California and California Thoroughbred Trainers told the racing board that their organizations wanted the meeting moved to Hollywood Park because of concerns about the safety of the Santa Anita Pro-Ride synthetic track.

The denial of the Oak Tree license occurred a day after Santa Anita chairman Frank Stronach said the track would replace its Pro-Ride main track with dirt before its winter meet starts on Dec. 26 but after the scheduled Oak Tree meet.

The racing board voted 6-0 to deny Oak Tree’s license to race at Santa Anita. Oak Tree officials told the board that it would begin discussions in coming days with Hollywood Park, and representatives of the CTT and TOC, to move the Oak Tree meeting there. Oak Tree asked the racing board to vote on its application to race at Santa Anita in order to make it easier to rescind existing contracts with vendors for the Santa Anita meeting.

The Oak Tree Racing Association holds dates for five weeks of racing from Sept. 29 to Oct. 31. Oak Tree officials said they wanted to stay at Santa Anita, where they have been based since the late 1960s.

Racing board officials are expected to meet in early September to discuss an Oak Tree at Hollywood Park meeting.

Oak Tree’s application was discussed throughout Thursday’s meeting, with two breaks, allowing Oak Tree officials to talk with CTT and TOC representatives after hearing a report from University of Maine professor Mick Peterson on his recent study of Santa Anita’s racetrack.

At Thursday’s racing board meeting, Peterson said his study discovered that the surface had an inconsistent layer of hard pan material below the top layer and that there was a higher-than-normal presence of rocks on the upper layer of the surface.

TOC president Arnold Zetcher said his organization was discouraged by Peterson’s findings.

“My concern [is] with the hard pan layer not being level or consistent,” he said. “If there is a way to make that level or consistent, I believe that will address the issues. That will be up to maintenance personnel to tell you whether they can do that.”

Zetcher said concern over that maintenance in coming weeks led his organization to urge that Hollywood Park host Oak Tree.

“Where we end up, it appears too chancy that in the next three or four weeks we’ll try to go in and correct the situation and be ready to run in five weeks,” Zetcher said. “That troubles us. We feel it is not worth taking the chance. Our conclusion is the meet should move to Hollywood Park.”

Zetcher said by moving Oak Tree to Hollywood Park, Santa Anita would have additional time to install a dirt track.
“If they have four months to handle the permanent [change] instead of two months trying to get it in, we would have a higher comfort level,” Zetcher said.

John Sadler, the CTT president, said the uncertainty from Peterson’s report on Thursday left his organization wanting a shift in venue.
“We’d like to see the meet run at Hollywood Park,” he said.

Commissioner Jerry Moss, who owns the popular undefeated champion Zenyatta, said the weight of the CTT and TOC’s opinion about moving Oak Tree to Hollywood Park was too strong to disregard.

“They express the majority, and I would go along with that,” he said.

At a meeting with approximately 250 horsemen at Del Mar on Wednesday evening, Stronach committed to having a dirt track in place “by the first week of December,” well in advance of the opening of the winter-spring meeting at Santa Anita on Dec. 26.

“We are committed to building a new dirt track,” Stronach said, receiving a round of applause. “We will do it now. We will gather the engineering and look for the materials. After Oak Tree is finished, we will have the track in place by the first week of December. The horses can train over it, and we can run over it on Dec. 26.”

Stronach did not say what type of dirt would be installed, or from where the material will be acquired. Dennis Mills, chief executive officer of MI Developments, said Wednesday evening that bids for material are currently being collected and that a decision could be made in the next week. He said the project will cost “$5 to $6 million.”

Earlier this year, it appeared that Oak Tree would race at Hollywood Park after another Stronach-controlled subsidiary Magna Entertainment declared bankruptcy. When MI Developments took over Santa Anita from Magna Entertainment, the lease between Santa Anita and Oak Tree was voided. Oak Tree explored moving its meeting to Del Mar or Hollywood Park but stayed at Santa Anita after Stronach agreed in June on a one-year lease.

The move to install a dirt track at Santa Anita brings to an end a three-year period in which Santa Anita’s races were run on two synthetic surfaces and encountered trouble with drainage. Acting on a mandate by the racing board, the track installed a Cushion Track surface in the summer of 2007, but the material was plagued by drainage problems, leading to the cancellation of 11 racing days.

A Pro-Ride surface was installed in the summer of 2008, but it too had drainage problems earlier this year, forcing the cancellation of five racing days.