09/26/2001 12:00AM

Dr. Arthur puts on manager's hat


ARCADIA, Calif. - Rick Arthur, doctor of veterinary medicine, owner, and breeder of Thoroughbred racehorses, is the latest in a long line of otherwise sensible professionals to jettison all logic and take on a front-line role in the destiny of a major Thoroughbred organization.

After more than 25 years as a respected surgeon and veterinarian to the stars, with a resume that includes the past presidency of the American Association of Equine Practitioners as well as the Association of Equine Sports Medicine, the 53-year-old Arthur now represents management - or at least a form of it - as the newest member of the Oak Tree Racing Association board of directors.

Arthur is easy to spot. On the directors' page of the Oak Tree media guide, he is the one with the full beard and no tie. If you meet him during the working day, chances are he will smell like an operating room, or a stall.

In both public and private conversations, he delivers his thoughts with an even-handed, professorial tone, leaving room for discussion but holding his ground, especially when he begins a statement with the warning, "The fact of the matter is . . ."

Now that he is sitting down at one of those boardroom tables usually populated by lawyers, real estate developers, and creatures with corporate pedigrees, Arthur could be forgiven if he feels very much the fish out of water. But on the six-man Oak Tree board, he has company. Dr. Jack Robbins, Oak Tree's president, was a working stiff just like Arthur - and five years younger to boot - when he was invited to become a founding member of the Oak Tree Racing Association in 1969.

Robbins is the last of the original group of original Oak Tree pioneers that included Clement Hirsch, Lou Rowan, and Ben Ridder. Their mandate was to run a race meeting "for horsemen, by horsemen" that would plow its proceeds into equine research and backstretch welfare. So far, with just 850 racing dates run at Santa Anita Park over the last 32 years, the total has reached more than $18 million.

Arthur concedes that Oak Tree enjoys a unique place in the industry. While it does share in some occasional capital improvements with its landlord, Santa Anita Park, Oak Tree does not need to maintain a facility. It has no huge building loan to repay, no mortgage, and no shareholders to hold at bay.

As a freshly minted director, Arthur admits to having his own agenda. He is a strong advocate of uniform racing medication rules, and he hopes that the access afforded an Oak Tree director will further the cause. He is also on a mission to bring the Breeders' Cup back to the Oak Tree meet, where it was last held in 1993. Building projects of Santa Anita's parent company, Magna Entertainment, have thwarted Oak Tree's recent attempts to host the Cup.

Such realities are a fact of life. Oak Tree is surrounded on all sides by aggressive public racing companies like Magna Entertainment and Churchill Downs, with only the ink on its current lease for protection. Both companies lust after dates, since racing dates translate into simulcast dollars. Only by the grace of the racing board does Oak Tree maintain its foothold.

"Hopefully, the racing board and the people of the state of California will continue to recognize that Oak Tree puts its money back into horse racing - all of it," Arthur said. "In that sense, it's a fairly difficult arrangement for any corporate entity to match."

So far, Arthur's Oak Tree experience has been a far cry from earlier brushes with the inner circle of racing politics.

"I sat on the Racing Committee of the American Horse Council for several years," Arthur said. "The primary focus, oddly, was not uniform medication rules, it was not the health of the horses, it was music licensing." Say what? "You know, when you turn on the TV at every little table at the track? Music companies wanted to be paid for that, and that's what we dealt with. I didn't have a lot to say."

Arthur worked for Jack Robbins back in the late 1960's before going on to earn his stripes at the University of Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. As a practicing vet, he has laid his hands on many of California's best horses, including John Henry and Kotashaan.

"I take pride in how little veterinary work a horse needs to win a race," he said. "If you manage them well, that's the key."

As an owner, Arthur has one horse in training. As a breeder, he topped the Del Mar yearling sale last summer with a son of Bertrando. The colt was out of a mare originally owned by Sheikh Mohammed's Darley Stud and salvaged by Arthur after a serious injury. He put four screws in her cannon bone, and she has shown her gratitude by producing two stakes winners in addition to the sale-topper.

Now he has added racetrack management to that portfolio. Or as he puts it: "I've gone from complaining about dirty rest rooms on the backstretch to getting those complaints myself.

"Oak Tree's focus is trying to make horse racing a healthy, viable sport," Arthur added. "We do have to deal with the bottom line, and operate in a way that's financially responsible, so that we can continue to fund so many different projects for the racing industry. And we still must recognize that it is the gambling dollar that pays for our sport.

"At the same time, we want to make sure the horsemen have a venue that makes them feel good. Let's face it, that doesn't happen too often."