06/23/2010 12:00AM

Oak Tree back at Santa Anita - for now

Benoit & Associates
Frank Stronach, the chairman of MI Developments, had said he did not want Oak Tree to run at Santa Anita in the fall, but later changed course.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The Oak Tree Racing Association will conduct its fall meeting at Santa Anita this year after reaching a verbal agreement Tuesday with Magna International Development, the track's parent company, for a one-year lease.

The agreement was the most significant and unexpected development in a four-hour meeting of the California Horse Racing Board at Hollywood Park during which Magna chairman Frank Stronach said he no longer wanted Oak Tree to conduct racing at Santa Anita. Stronach abruptly reversed course - at least for this year - after racing board members and a prominent Thoroughbred owner, Mace Siegel, appealed to him.

In addition, Stronach said that Santa Anita will not change its Pro-Ride synthetic main track until next spring at the earliest and identified as a possible replacement a silica sand-based material used at equestrian centers in Europe. Stronach did not identify the new surface by name and said a silica sand-based track would be installed at MID's Palm Meadows training center in Florida this fall, where it could be scrutinized by trainers and jockeys when the training center is operational next winter.

Stronach's presence dominated the meeting and the agreement for Oak Tree to race at Santa Anita this year was surprising because of recent discussions about relocating the race meeting to Hollywood Park or Del Mar this year.

If Magna International and Oak Tree follow through with the agreement, it would end weeks of confusion regarding the site of the Oak Tree meeting to be conducted Sept. 29 to Oct. 31. Magna International voided Oak Tree's lease in mid-May, contending that the financial arrangements were no longer viable, a position that Stronach reiterated at Tuesday's meeting.

Oak Tree officials have said throughout that that they would like to stay at Santa Anita, where the race meeting has been based since its inception in 1969.

Toward the end of Tuesday's meeting, after Stronach stated that he no longer wanted tenants at Santa Anita, Oak Tree officials were discussing their options for 2010 when Siegel asked to speak and urged board members to reach out to Stronach for a resolution with Oak Tree for this year.

"If you asked Mr. Stronach, I believe he would say yes," Siegel told the board members.

Stronach responded by saying that he was "here to find solutions. I do have a concern for some of the people that work at the track. I would commit to this year, and we would not have any more."

Five members of the Oak Tree board were present at the meeting: president Jack Robbins, executive vice-president Sherwood Chillingworth, and members Rick Arthur, John Barr, and Richard Mandella. After Siegel and Stronach spoke, the five Oak Tree members adjourned along with Siegel for approximately eight minutes to discuss the proposal privately. They returned to announce their support for a verbal agreement.

"Mr. Stronach has generously changed his mind and let us stay there for another year," Chillingworth told the racing board. "It's good for the industry and good for all of us. I understand this is one year only. I'd like to thank people from Del Mar and Hollywood Park. I apologize to them for having to change this decision.

"I think it's better to run this year at Santa Anita, and from that point we'll move forward."

Chillingworth said later that reaching even a one-year agreement was important and specifically mentioned the year-round employees at Santa Anita. "Without racing, it would have been hard to keep that staff together," he said.

The tentative agreement was preceded by a 70-minute, sometimes heated exchange between Stronach and members of the racing board over the direction of the two California tracks that Magna International owns - Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita.

During a 10-minute speech, Stronach called for massive deregulation of the sport with the desire of running more frequently at Santa Anita than the current four-month meeting from Dec. 26 to late April. Stronach said repeatedly that he has a "huge investment" in horse racing.

"The system doesn't work anymore," he said. "The model doesn't work anymore.

"I am for strong regulations to protect the public and the integrity of the sport. Let the best people who put on the best show, let them succeed. The ones that do not put on a good show, let them fall by the wayside."

Stronach called for the development of bets that would produce lottery-size jackpots to gain public attention, mentioning a "quadruple quadfecta" or a superfecta on four consecutive races. "Take the average lottery player," he said. "He buys a $1 ticket, he is trying to change his lifestyle. We can't ignore the public.

"We are trapped in laws. Laws are made by people and changed by people. We've got to sit down. Time is running out. We've got to go through a structure whereby the public will embrace that and we'll get the customers back.

"We try to be flexible. When you look down the road, it's got to be free enterprise. We've got to sit down. We won't solve everything here today. We've got to include the horsemen, and the commission

"Time is running out before this wonderful industry will disappear."

Stronach was later challenged by racing board members on the absence of improvements on Santa Anita's backstretch, Magna's lack of legislative proposals to aid California racing, and the voiding of the Oak Tree lease, which helped lead the Breeders' Cup to announce Churchill Downs as host track for 2011 instead of a return to Santa Anita during the Oak Tree meeting, which was the Breeders' Cup host in 2008 and 2009.

Later, Stronach agreed to meet with the racing board's chairman, Keith Brackpool, and member David Israel to discuss ways to improve economic conditions in California racing.

"Let's hope this is the start of a discussion," Brackpool said afterward. "Maybe the problem has turned into an opportunity. Maybe this is the first step we can sit down and start working together."

Stronach was a reluctant participant in the installation of synthetic tracks in California in 2007. Santa Anita's Cushion Track surface failed to drain sufficiently when it was initially installed. It was later replaced with a Pro-Ride brand surface in the summer of 2008. The base of the Pro-Ride surface also had drainage problems.

He said the potential replacement surface would be tested at Palm Meadows in heat and rain. The surface consists largely of silica sand, with cloth fibers mixed into the surface, and has been used at equestrian centers in Spain and in Austria, he said.

The new surface would not be ready for either the Oak Tree meeting in September or the traditional winter-spring meeting at Santa Anita that opens on Dec. 26.

"That gives us time to hold the discussions properly and get the testimonials from jockeys and trainers," he said. "It's basically got pipes underneath, a liner, and you have a filter and silica sand. You have new nylon, about an inch square. It's no oils. I believe it's the best surface for horses."