10/20/2008 12:00AM

Comfort in role of Cup's host


ARCADIA, Calif. - Sherwood Chillingworth was no more than a casual racing fan in the early 1970s when Santa Anita's president, Frank Ryan, told him there was a pretty good box coming available at the next meet if he'd like to grab it.

Bear in mind, in those days such an offer was the equivalent of being presented the key to the owner's suite at Yankee Stadium or ringside seats at La Scala. Santa Anita was not only the heartbeat of California horse racing, it was a social mecca for both visiting Easterners and the privileged of Pasadena.

"Thanks, Frank," Chillingworth said. "I'd like to come take a look at it first, though." To which Ryan replied, "Well, you've got Alfred Vanderbilt on one side, Elmendorf Farm on the other, and Cecelia deMille Harper behind you."

Enough said. Chillingworth took the box, sight unseen, and has spent the ensuing decades in an unabashed state of unconditional affection for the sport of Thoroughbred racing. As an owner, he and his partners were rewarded with a dizzying run of success in through 1980s. As a racing executive, he has served the Oak Tree Racing Association as its executive director since 1993. This weekend, Chillingworth will be front and center representing Oak Tree for the third time as host of the Breeders' Cup, with a fourth to come in 2009.

Chillingworth was an innocent bystander at the first Oak Tree Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita in 1986, when Hall of Famers Lady's Secret and Manila led the parade of winners. In reality, it was kind of surprising that Chillingworth did not have a horse in the hunt.

Together with a variety of partners - including the late Fred Duckett, Hollywood Park president Jack Liebau and current Oak Tree director Tom Capehart - Chillingworth won major stakes from coast to coast with the likes of Swing Till Dawn (Strub and Widener), Forzando (Met Mile), Valley Crossing (Coaching Club American Oaks), and Kadial (Dixie Handicap). They even won an Oak Tree Invitational with the former Aga Khan horse Yashgan, in 1985, before Chillingworth had anything to do with Oak Tree at all. He joined the board of directors in 1989.

"I've enjoyed horses all my life," Chillingworth said. "And being an owner was particularly interesting. As Bill Walsh said when he took the job as football coach of Stanford, 'At some point in your life you ought to start doing what you like to do.' So I took his advice."

Chillingworth was born in Honolulu. His father was in the building-materials business and in his spare time loved to play the role of paniolo - Hawaiian cowboy. Chillingworth's grandfather was an English lawyer who found paradise, while mother was originally from Southern California. There are any number of well-known Chillingworths popping up in the modern history of the islands, including Hawaiian music star Sonny Chillingworth. Young Sherwood, who at some point became "Chilly," was 15 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

"We were standing on our balcony," he recalled. "All of a sudden a plane came flying by. Our house was on the side of the ridge, and the wings were at eye level. But you couldn't see the insignia. It was painted jet black. We though, 'Gee, the Army is getting very real with these war maneuvers.' " Chillingworth enjoyed a successful career as a Los Angeles corporate attorney and real estate investor before racing came along. At one point he was courted by business associate Justin Dart to run for the U.S. Senate, but he declined.

"I just couldn't see myself shaking hands with all those people and trying to remember their names," Chillingworth said. "I told him that George Murphy might be interested." Murphy - an actor - was, and he won.

As point man and head cheerleader, Chillingworth is forever battling the identity crisis brought on by the relationship of Oak Tree to its leaseholder, Santa Anita Park. Since the first Oak Tree meet there in 1969, the track has been owned by the Los Angeles Turf Club, Meditrust, and now Magna Entertainment, while Oak Tree's mission and basic profile have remained the same. Still, because of Santa Anita's long history and physical impact, the Oak Tree brand sometimes gets lost in translation.

Breeders' Cup, though, is a chance for Oak Tree to shine. It has been well documented that the Breeders' Cup is not a money-making proposition for the host racetrack. But because Oak Tree does not pay dividends to shareholders - only rent to Santa Anita and other operating expenses - the board of directors has energetically courted the Breeders' Cup as often as possible, simply because the exposure is priceless.

"We're very proud that Oak Tree set the ontrack Breeders' Cup handle record in 1993 and then again in 2003," Chillingworth noted. "This year, of course, there's the challenge of the economy. Business at this meet is down 14 percent. We're hoping for 30,000 on Friday and 50,000 on Saturday, but a lot of that will depend on walk-ups, and people making that last-minute decision to come."

Chillingworth the fan would be there in a heartbeat.

"Once I started coming here regularly, I had a tradition," he said. "Every year on Christmas Eve I would come out to the track. It wouldn't be opening for two days, so it was pretty much deserted. I'd just sit in my box and enjoy the view. There's no more beautiful sight in racing."