09/28/2010 3:18PM

New venue for historic Oak Tree meet

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Benoit & Associates
Unzip Me is being considered for a start against males in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – The new name takes a little getting used to – Oak Tree at Hollywood Park.

For 40 years, Oak Tree at Santa Anita was an autumn fixture on the Southern California racing calendar. The race meeting was a springboard for California’s best horses trying to reach the Breeders’ Cup and the season that cultivated the California Cup into one of the nation’s showcase days for statebreds.

All that shifts to Hollywood Park for the first time this year when the Oak Tree meeting opens Thursday night for a 22-day season through Oct. 31.

The meeting is a mix of the Oak Tree elements – a concentration of stakes races in the first two weekends that are preps for the Breeders Cup and the California Cup program on Oct. 30 – along with Hollywood Park’s traditions – night racing on three Thursdays and three Fridays, all featuring concerts after racing, designed to attract a younger audience. Instead of the Santa Anita Pro-Ride, horses will race on the Hollywood Cushion Track.

Oh, and there is an undefeated two-time champion and bonafide racing star appearing Saturday when the mighty Zenyatta attempts to stretch her unbeaten streak to 19 races in the $250,000 Lady’s Secret Stakes for fillies and mares.

In 2008 and 2009, Zenyatta won the Lady’s Secret Stakes at Oak Tree as a prep to victories in the 2008 BC Ladies’ Classic and 2009 Classic, the first time that a female had defeated males in that race. Both of those Breeders’ Cup races were at Santa Anita, but this year the event is at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5-6.

Typical of past Oak Tree meetings, this fall’s first two weekends are dominated by preps for the Breeders’ Cup races. There are six graded stakes at Hollywood on Saturday and Sunday, and three on the weekend of Oct. 9-11.

Zenyatta’s appearance in the Grade 1 Lady’s Secret will be the focus of Saturday’s program, which features three other Grade 1 stakes – the Goodwood, Norfolk, and Yellow Ribbon. Three of those Grade 1 races will be presented live in a 90-minute program on ESPN Classic from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Pacific. The Lady’s Secret also will be presented live on ESPN at approximately 4:15 p.m.

 

The first graded stakes of the season is Thursday’s $100,000 Sen. Ken Maddy Handicap, a Grade 3 for fillies and mares over six furlongs on turf. At Santa Anita, the race was run over about 6 1/2 furlongs on the hillside turf course, but six furlongs is the maximum distance for turf sprints at Hollywood Park.

The race has drawn a strong field of nine, including three 2010 stakes winners – Bonifacio, Dotsy Jean, and Unzip Me. The Maddy is the eighth race on a nine-race program that begins at 7:05 p.m. Pacific.

Unzip Me figures to be favored. Trained by Marty Jones, Unzip Me has won 6 of her last 7 starts with her only loss in that span a third against males in the Robert Kerlan Handicap here over six furlongs on turf in July.

As strong as Unzip Me looks, Jones also trains the capable Dotsy Jean, who has won 5 of 7 starts on Hollywood Park’s turf course, including the Culver City Stakes on July 2. Unzip Me is a threat from the front, while Dotsy Jean is best as a stalker.

“They both seem to be doing really well,” Jones said. “I’m not looking forward to running them against each other, but it is where they belong.”

Jones is one of three trainers with two runners in the race. John Sadler starts Alpha Kitten and Minute Limit, while Mark Glatt runs Czechers and Reba Is Tops. Craig Dollase starts Bonifacio, who won the Daisycutter Handicap over five furlongs on turf at Del Mar in August.

For Oak Tree officials, getting to opening day has not been easy.

Last May, MI Developments, the parent company of Santa Anita, voided Oak Tree’s lease to run there this year after taking over the racetrack from Magna Entertainment, which declared bankruptcy. Then, the two sides reconciled at a California Horse Racing Board meeting in June, agreeing to an Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita this fall.

The plan lasted two months, until officials with the Thoroughbred Owners of California and California Thoroughbred Trainers organizations told the racing board in August they wanted no part of running their horses on Santa Anita’s troubled synthetic surface this fall. (Santa Anita has since agreed to replace the surface with a dirt track this fall.)

The racing board declined Oak Tree’s request to race at Santa Anita this fall, but agreed two weeks later to allow an Oak Tree at Hollywood Park meeting to go forward, setting off a scramble among Oak Tree and Hollywood Park officials to prepare for the meeting, which begins Thursday.

Last month, Oak Tree announced it intends to run its 2011 meeting at Hollywood Park and is in discussions with Del Mar to race there in future seasons.

Now that the front-office developments have been settled, at least for this fall, the actual sport of watching Thoroughbreds compete can be the focus.