09/13/2013 3:23PM

Jay Hovdey: Oak Tree hasn’t ridden off into the sunset yet


Some old habits die harder than others. For example, on Steve Byk’s “At the Races” radio show Friday morning, trainer John Sadler, fresh from a title at Del Mar, was running through his candidates for upcoming races, only recently renamed, at the Santa Anita autumn meet. To his credit, he got them all right – the John Henry, the Zenyatta, the Awesome Again, the Rodeo Drive – only he didn’t call it the Santa Anita autumn meet.

He called it Oak Tree.

Sadler is not alone. The Oak Tree brand lingers in the DNA of California’s horse racing culture like the perfume of a lost love. Oak Tree meant so much for so long – 42 years – that it will take more than a few turns of the calendar for the name to fade away, if it ever does at all.

And it won’t, if John Barr and Sherwood Chillingworth have anything to say about it. Barr is the president of the Oak Tree Racing Association and Chillingworth is the executive vice president. Its board of directors includes Thomas Capehart, Richard Mandella, Rick Arthur, Robert Zamarrippa, Warren Williamson, and Jack Robbins.

Robbins was among the founding Oak Tree directors in 1969, when they had to convince a reluctant Santa Anita Park management that there was a very good reason to offer a quality racing meet in the autumn of the year, especially if it was a meet run by horse owners who would dedicate the profits to equine veterinary research and assorted racing charities, which they did for 42 years.

At this point, however, there has not been an Oak Tree race meeting since 2010, when the association was evicted from its Santa Anita home and its dates presented in a one-shot deal at Hollywood Park.

There was a considerable amount of impotent public outcry when Santa Anita owner Frank Stronach took advantage of his racetrack company’s emergence from bankruptcy to void the lease he had just signed with Oak Tree. Stronach was no longer interested in being a landlord for those autumn dates, and, well, it’s his racetrack. Just like that, Oak Tree was a racing association without a home.

Everyone has since made nice enough. Oak Tree’s offices are still at Santa Anita, but Oak Tree’s only public presence has been the sponsorship of three races late in the Del Mar meet: the Oak Tree Juvenile Turf, Oak Tree Juvenile Fillies Turf, and a lesser version of Oak Tree’s signature Yellow Ribbon.

Without a revenue stream from a pari-mutuel meet, Oak Tree’s charitable profile has been scaled back. On top of everything else, Oak Tree has its attorneys battling a demand from the Service Employees International Union for $3 million to meet what the SEIU contends is a pension funding obligation now that Oak Tree is “leaving the industry.”

“That term has never been defined, and it’s certainly not our intent to leave the industry if we have anything to say about it,” Chillingworth said. “We feel Oak Tree still has a lot to contribute to racing in California.”

That’s good to hear, since there are a lot of balls in the air out West, mostly tossed by the closure of Hollywood Park at the end of the year, and no one knows yet how they’ll land.

Del Mar will present a second meet from early November through early December beginning in 2014.

The management of the Quarter Horse facility at Los Alamitos has offered its services to the Thoroughbred population as a year-round training facility in return for two weeks of racing in July 2014 and three weeks in December, contingent upon, among other things, the expansion of its track to a mile in circumference.

The management of Hollywood Park has offered to keep its track and barns open for training into 2014, for a price, while Los Alamitos expands its racetrack and the management of Santa Anita completes its refurbishing of the San Luis Rey Downs training center it owns in the North San Diego County town of Bonsall.

Given such turmoil, it’s little wonder that the Oak Tree board has cast its sights northward, where the racing is pretty much a long, hard slog through nine months at Golden Gate Fields, near Oakland, interrupted only by a colorful patchwork of summertime county fairs.

Located in the town of Pleasanton, in the heart of the sprawling East Bay suburbs, the Alameda County Fair traditionally kicks off the Northern California racing fair circuit each summer with dates in late June and early July. Pleasanton stays open year-round for training as well, giving local horsemen an alternative to Golden Gate and Oak Tree a reason to look favorably upon a partnership.

“We’re looking for someplace permanent,” Chillingworth said. “Someplace Oak Tree can help build up the game. The racing meet at Alameda is the best attended and has the most handle of any of the fairs. We’ve met, they like us, and we like them. So we’ll see.”

Wherever they might go, Oak Tree comes bearing gifts, and not only in terms of a rich history and glowing national reputation. Pleasanton, for instance, does not have a turf course. And Oak Tree, wherever they go, would be in a position to supplement purses in order to attract better horses.

No one’s kidding themselves. The next manifestation of the Oak Tree brand, if there is one, will look nothing like the one that played co-host to five presentations of the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. Still, in their fondest dreams, Chillingworth and Barr would love to be able to pass on to the next generation of Oak Tree directors a racing association with a long-term lease arrangement at an established facility and a restoration of Oak Tree’s mandate as a group run “by horsemen for horsemen.”

“We’ll keep going until we run into a stone wall,” John Barr said. “And we’re not there yet.”