09/22/2008 12:00AM

Happy bunch of guinea pigs


ARCADIA, Calif. - Welcome to another autumn season of Thoroughbred sport presented by the Oak Tree Racing Association, better known as Santa Anita's petri dish.

Every major racetrack company should have access to one of these - a life-size, real-time mini-meet during which every conceivable betting innovation, grandstand contraption, and decorative doodad can be tested and tried by a readymade flock of flesh and blood customers.

Since Oak Tree's inception in 1969 - as the answer to the question "What do we do after Pomona?" - the founders have met the challenge with a stiff spine and resolution. What else is a renter to do? A new turf course? Sure, we'll give it a road test. Tinkering with the tote? Roll it out and see what happens. Host the Breeders' Cup? Bring it on.

Believe it or not, the idea for a four-week Oak Tree meet tucked into the calendar's dead zone was a hard sell. Apparently, the tradition-bound Strub family that owned Santa Anita was concerned with overexposure of the sport. How quaint.

"It took us the better part of a year to convince Bob Strub that a meet ending in early November wouldn't impact his Dec. 26 opening at the big meet," recalled Dr. Jack Robbins, the last of the founding Oak Tree directors still serving the cause. "We told him we thought he could make a little money with that idle plant."

A succession of Santa Anita ownerships has figured out that Oak Tree is a reliable money-maker as a tenant, reflected in the fact that the rent, as a function of handle, has increased with each renewal of the lease. This is to be expected. Santa Anita Park is not designed to be a charitable institution, in contrast to the stated mandate of the Oak Tree Racing Association as a meet run by horsemen for horsemen.

Other tracks dedicate a portion of their funds for such tasks, but Oak Tree is the only racing association whose existence is based upon the health and welfare of the racehorse. As a result, millions of dollars have found their way from Oak Tree's share of the betting handle into valuable research, primarily through such institutions as the University of California-Davis's Center for Equine Health and Performance.

Oak Tree originally came along as a second chance to occupy a month's worth of autumn dates granted by the California Horse Racing Board. The first attempt, by another group at Del Mar in October 1967, was a staggering failure, with attendance and handle totals less than half of those posted at the Del Mar summer meet.

"I worked at that meet, and it was very lonely," said Joe Harper, now Del Mar's president and formerly executive assistant to original Oak Tree chairman Clement Hirsch. "Of course, with offtrack betting now, those 2,300 or so people we had some days doesn't seem all that bad."

Oak Tree's operators hope to do considerably better, even though it could be argued that the season faces the most daunting set of challenges in its history. Considering the confluence of the following:

* Oak Tree is the first major California meet being run under the full penalty provisions of the new anti-steroid rules. Until Sept. 4, transgressors were given a Class 4 wrist slap, with no fines, suspensions, or purse forfeitures. Now, testing positive for excess levels gets you a Classo3 beef.

* For the second straight year, Oak Tree will be guinea pig to a new synthetic surface installed at the expense of Santa Anita's owner, Magna Entertainment. At last year's opening-day debut of Cushion Track, vials of the old Santa Anita dirt course were given away as a piece of nostalgia. Over the winter, when Cushion Track went horribly wrong, marketing VP Allen Gutterman suggested a recall of the dirt vials, just in case. Instead, Santa Anita has gone with Pro-Ride, which is sand, fiber, and rubber bits coated in polymers rather than wax. We'll see.

* The Breeders' Cup is back, and while Oak Tree has hosted the event on three prior occasions, this will be its first as a two-day affair, Oct. 24 and 25. The Cup is never a money-maker for the host association, and it will be even less so with two days committed to Breeders' Cup programming. But Oak Tree has the advantage of not being as tethered to the bottom line as corporately owed host sites. The mere fact that the eyes of the racing world will be on the sport, as defined by Oak Tree, is firmly in the plus column.

* The elephant in the starting gate is, of course, the economy. Oak Tree will have the honor of opening into the teeth of a full-blown crisis in both the U.S. financial and real estate markets. The effect that will have on discretionary gambling dollars and a live customer base is a scary prospect, especially in light of the fact that the recent meets at Del Mar and Fairplex Park were not exactly brimming with good news.

"If you go by the signs of other meetings, we're going to have to see a reversal of trends," Robbins said. "But I think we'll have a very good meeting. There's been a lot done with the fact that it's the celebration of the 25th Breeders' Cup. I'm pretty impressed with the fact that it's also the 40th Oak Tree meet. That's a pretty good run."