08/05/2011 2:19PM

Gregson dinner calls for renewed hope


Eddie Gregson made the same mark on the summertime season at Del Mar that he made at every other outpost on the California circuit, only more so.

His barn was an automatic stop every morning, if only to admire the appointments and pay a visit to the big horse. Depending on the year, that big horse could have been Tsunami Slew, winner of the Eddie Read and Del Mar Derby. It could have been Super Diamond, a local boy who won the San Diego. It could have been Del Mar Handicap winner Ardiente, or Del Mar Oaks winner Slew of Pearls, or maybe that was the year he won the Del Mar Futurity with Gato del Sol, who went on to take the Kentucky Derby.

Gregson could dish the racetrack trash with the best of them, but he preferred the informed conversation and considered no problem facing racing as trivial, whether it was the spread of legal medications, the overseas drain of American bloodstock, or the inability of the sport to learn from its own hard lessons. He was also very funny.

The sad fact that Gregson took his own life 11 years ago, just as he was laying the groundwork for a first-class Thoroughbred operation for new patron Jon Kelly in Del Mar’s neighboring Rancho Santa Fe, remains one of those wounds that resists closing. There is no trouble among his friends and colleagues in remembering Gregson. The problem is accepting that he’s gone, and still hearing his voice echo in the serious issues of the day.

One of those issues was for Gregson – and still is for the racing industry – the quality of life available to those who handle the horses. Gregson was born to a certain amount of privilege, his choices plentiful. One of them was college, which preceded a fling at acting, and then finally the Thoroughbreds, where he found a home. He never forgot how lucky he was and endeavored to spread that luck around.

Gregson’s death lit a fire under the people who knew him best. The Edwin J. Gregson Foundation, established in 2001, provides scholarships for the sons and daughters of those who work at the edges of racing’s bright spotlight. More than 300 grants have been awarded to children of the backstretch by the Gregson Foundation, along with the support and encouragement to pursue educational dreams they didn’t even know they could have.

On Monday night, at the Grand Del Mar Hotel, the Gregson Foundation’s annual dinner will honor its most generous benefactor – the Oak Tree Racing Association. Had he lived, Gregson would have been serving on the Oak Tree board of directors by now, but that’s beside the point. The mandate of Oak Tree always transcended its individual personalities, and without the efforts of such benevolent organizations . . . well, let’s just say there would be a whole lot of young people whose potential might never have seen the light of day.

There will be a poignant tinge to Monday’s proceedings. For the first time since the first Nixon Administration, it has become increasingly clear that will be no Oak Tree Racing Association meeting in 2011. The 11th-hour decision to install a new dirt surface at Santa Anita last fall displaced the Oak Tree season from its traditional home to Hollywood Park, and now the dates Oak Tree had operated since 1969 have been awarded to Santa Anita’s ownership for what appears to be the foreseeable future.

Whether or not Oak Tree can find a new home remains a serious question, and it has been the operation of a high-class race meet that has funded its charitable programs. The future won’t be answered by Monday, though, which means the evening’s theme will be of celebration, not worry, highlighting Oak Tree’s history of significant contributions to everything from veterinary research to backstretch welfare.

In addition, there will be an opportunity to salute the current board that includes chairman John Barr, executive director Sherwood Chillingworth, Richard Mandella, Tom Capehart, Rich Arthur, Warren Williamson, Robert Zamarripa, and chairman emeritus Jack Robbins, the noted veterinarian who was one of Oak Tree’s founding fathers.

“We’ve got a tough road ahead of us,” said Capehart, an Oak Tree director since 1993. “I really hope something can be worked out with Del Mar, because we would like to race there. But it’s contingent on the dates we’d be able to get, and so many things are really out of our hands.”

It has been a by-product of the tumultuous past year and a half on the California racing scene that Oak Tree has been forced to justify its existence. To those who know its history, this is akin to asking, “Why the Red Cross?” In a culture that demands self-promotion, Oak Tree’s profile was definitely old-school. These are not guys who spend much time patting themselves on the back.

“Certainly the contributions we’ve made to the UC Davis and to organizations like the Winners Foundation and the Gregson Foundation have been important,” Capehart said. “I’m on the board of the Winners Foundation, and I can attest to how many people we’ve helped through that program.

“Basically, I think being able to give back to the industry has been what Oak Tree is about,” Capehart added. “I think the amount has been in excess of $30 million, but the total just kind of goes by the wayside when you think about all that needs to be done. I just hope we’ll be in a position to continue on.”