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Jay Hovdey: Oak Tree hasn’t ridden off into the sunset yet
By Jay Hovdey
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.”
Oak tree pay up on your pension contributions .
who moderates these comments? can we keep the posts to the subject of HORSE RACING?
As a newer owner, I was not aware of the contributions to charity from Oak Tree. I'd seen the name on the gates in clips and on PP's. What a win/win plan. You win even if you lose (the race there) with the charitable link. Love to see them team with Pleasanton and Santa Rosa which has a turf course (one that could use some work) for some high stakes dates at those locales. It really breaks up the season some and would boost those meets and local economies. Then, of course, the need has never been greater for thoroughbred retirement funds, disable jockey and backstretch assistance, research on performance enhancing substances/drug testing, veterinary advances, etc. Love to see Oak Tree cap Pleasanton and Santa Rosa with their stakes program bringing back those races. The undercards could also get boosts (with allowance/allowance optionals) with the big name trainers, jockeys, and a small string along for company.
Stronach group does its very best to ruin California racing. I don't get it-- own horses and racetracks, but yet, he hides behind his horses and real estate at the same time trying to sell out. Bay Meadows is now another housing tract. He tried to sell Golden Gate Fields to the non tax paying dept of Energy last year. Stronach Group should get out of racing and stick with the automotive industry. I get sick of the real estate mentality of selling out to obiquitous big box stores, strip malls and high density housing. There is plenty of land in blighted areas that can use redevelopment. He's not into racing-- it's a vehicle for his ego to take racing, ruin it, and profit from ruining the very sport he purports to be a part of. I hope Oaktree can find a home here in Nor Cal. We need to honor and respect tradition and the class acts that are part of honor and tradition. The world would be a better place.
Oak Tree and Del Mar's fall meet would be a match made in a convenient heaven. Why OTRA would EVER consider getting into bed with Stronach at Golden Gate is beyond sanity. Go where you're wanted, and remember who doesn't. Stronach is that person; reward Del Mar in November, and not him.
I agree with John. Stronach must not have a soul.
These races names are just terrible. Awesome Again never even raced on this track, though I guess it does stroke Stronach's ego, the Rodeo Drive is absolutely meaningless and while there is no doubt that Zenyatta deserves a Grade 1 race in her name, they could've chosen a number of other races and not shown such disrespect for another great female HOY, Lady's Secret. Very, very poor decision making and an insult to the iron lady.
The second 5 weeks of Horse Racing could and should be called..Oak Tree at Del Mar....there is not ONE valid argument against that...step up Harper!
Stronach should bury his head in the sand , a man with that kind of money turns his back on a charity !INSANE ! Ill tell you one thing, if there is a "higher source" and we have to stand in front of him when our time has come, then old Frank is in a world of hurt, money cant buy his way out of that hot spot ! Give them back the meet Frank, save your freaking soul !
The Breeders Cup is a joke now anyways...they sold out by making it a two day event by putting in race fillers...it needs to be a 10 card one day event....the races like juvenile filly sprint and marathon are embarrassing