09/24/2006 11:00PM

A meet all about the horse


ARCADIA, Calif. - While most of the nationwide simulcast audience will look upon Wednesday's program at Santa Anita as just another day at the races, those who have followed the 38-year history of the Oak Tree Racing Association know better.

The month of sport presented during each Oak Tree session represents the only California meet dedicated first and foremost to the health and welfare of the Thoroughbred. The Oak Tree group has no stockholders to baby-sit, no corporate masters to serve, no large debts to pay down. Once operating costs and lease payments to Santa Anita are satisfied, the remaining funds are distributed to such practical ventures as the Center for Equine Health and Performance at the University of California at Davis and the Grayson-Jockey Club Foundation, among others.

Over the years, this has amounted to more than $20 million in funding. The number of horses who have been helped by the support of such programs is harder to tally. Let's just say it has probably been a good-sized herd.

It was Oak Tree's mission that lured Trudy McCaffery away from her seat on the board of the Thoroughbred Owners of California in 2003 to become a director of the Oak Tree Racing Association. Her resume made her a natural, given her marketing background and her high profile as an owner and breeder of outstanding runners in partnership with John Toffan. The fact that she is a native of Calgary was not held against her.

McCaffery is approaching her fourth Oak Tree season with wary enthusiasm. There are too many adverse winds buffeting the business these days for anyone to feel complacent. And besides, if Oak Tree's numbers are not good, then it is the equine research programs that suffer.

"I'm a little worried that Del Mar was down in attendance," McCaffery said Monday from her home in Rancho Santa Fe. "It's a sobering thought that not even Del Mar is immune. But they had that siege of hot weather - just like Oak Tree did last year - so I'm sure that had something to do with it."

Since weather is a crap shoot, McCaffery prefers to dwell on an Oak Tree marketing campaign - led by Santa Anita's marketing chief, Allen Gutterman - that focuses strongly on live attendance, promoting opening day, the first two weekends featuring eight Breeders' Cup preps, and the popular California Cup program on the final Saturday of the meet, Oct. 28.

"Allen's team did such a great job last winter with the main Santa Anita meet, we're very happy to have them working for Oak Tree," McCaffery said.

What Oak Tree does not have this year is the Breeders' Cup, which means the loss of a premium Saturday in terms of handle and attendance. The Nov. 4 running of the BC World Championships at Churchill Downs will fall outside the Oak Tree dates for only the fourth time in the 23 runnings of the Breeders' Cup. On those other three occasions, the Cup was run live across town at Hollywood Park.

Rather than dwell on the loss of a big day this year, McCaffery is hoping that Oak Tree will be in the running to play host to the 2008 Breeders' Cup, as it did in 1986, 1993, and 2003.

"I think they like us because we put on a good show," McCaffery said. "Hopefully, if the Breeders' Cup thinks about California, they think of us."

McCaffery and Toffan were part of the show at Santa Anita in 1993 when their turf star Bien Bien came within a half-length of winning the Breeders' Cup Turf. They at least had the consolation of being defeated by Kotashaan, who was later voted Horse of the Year.

McCaffery and Toffan have ended their partnership - both personal and professional - but McCaffery has continued with a stable of her own. One of the jewels is a filly out of the stakes-winning Seattle Slew mare Visible Slew, from the last crop of Free House.

As a racehorse, Free House was a major player throughout his career, winning significant stakes each season at ages 2 through 5. Among his wins were the Santa Anita Derby, the Santa Anita Handicap, and the Pacific Classic, and he was off to a good start at stud when he fractured his skull in a freak accident at Vessels Stallion Farm in July of 2004. Free House is buried at Vessels, in a clearing with a marker and a meditation bench nearby, a bench often occupied by McCaffery.

"I was there just the other day," she said. "They've planted yellow daisies, to go along with the sunflowers."

When Oak Tree offers the Norfolk Stakes for 2-year-olds on Oct. 8, it will mark the 10th anniversary of the victory of Free House in the 1 1/16-mile main-track event. To describe the memory as indelible is an understatement.

"It was the day he finally got a little bit serious and really ran," McCaffery recalled. "Even then, coming down the lane, he was looking around. Who knows what he was looking at? He did it until he was 5. He just loved his job so much that I think he was determined to have as much fun out there as possible."