06/22/2010 11:00PM

Oak Tree eyes Del Mar meet in 2011

Benoit & Associates
"We don't have any hope we will be there beyond 2010," Oak Tree board member Joel Barr said. "We can concentrate on going to Del Mar and working out an agreement with them."

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The Oak Tree Racing Association will seek to run its meet at Del Mar in 2011, Oak Tree board member John Barr said Wednesday, a day after Santa Anita owner Frank Stronach said he won't offer Oak Tree a lease after this year.

At Tuesday's California Horse Racing Board meeting, Oak Tree and Magna International Developments, the parent company of Santa Anita, reached a verbal agreement to run the 2010 meeting at Santa Anita. Stronach said at the meeting that he no longer wants Oak Tree as a tenant, stating that such an arrangement is no longer financially viable.

"Mr. Stronach does not want us there in the future," Barr said. "We don't have any hope we will be there beyond 2010. We can concentrate on going to Del Mar and working out an agreement with them."

Del Mar president Craig Fravel said that his track, and the county fairgrounds on which it is located, would like to host a fall Oak Tree meeting in 2011.

"Both the fair grounds and us have said we're interested in doing this," Fravel said Wednesday.

Barr was part of a group of five Oak Tree board members who agreed to a surprise offer from Stronach at the racing board meeting to allow Oak Tree to run at Santa Anita in 2010, and not move the meeting to Hollywood Park or Del Mar, as had been expected.

Three hours into Tuesday's four-hour meeting, Oak Tree Racing Association president Jack Robbins, accompanied by executive vice-president Sherwood Chillingworth and Barr, Richard Mandella and Rick Arthur, left the room for eight minutes to contemplate Magna's offer.

Meeting on the patio of Hollywood Park's turf club, the conversation between the Oak Tree directors was brief and to the point. The five men, advised by attorney Robert Forgnone and later joined by horse owner Mace Siegel, reached a quick decision to accept the verbal offer, and avoid a massive change to the calendar. Oak Tree is expected to run at Santa Anita from Sept. 29 to Oct. 31.

For much of Stronach's 10-minute speech at Tuesday's meeting, and the subsequent hour debate with racing board commissioners on a variety of issues facing Santa Anita and the sport, Stronach emphasized that he no longer wanted Oak Tree as a tenant, an arrangement that began in 1969. Stronach bought the track in 1998.

Stronach reversed course for this year after Siegel appealed to him publicly to reconsider. The appeal set off a rapid sequence of events that changed the tone of the meeting from hostile at times to more conciliatory. "This is one of the silliest damn arguments I've listened to in some time," Siegel said before the Oak Tree board verbally agreed to remain at Santa Anita.

The sequence of events that led to Oak Tree likely racing at Santa Anita this year surprised Barr.

"I didn't think it would turn out the way it did," said Barr, an owner and breeder from Orange County who has been on the Oak Tree board since 1997. "It helps Santa Anita employees as well. This was something the racing board wanted us to do it."

Barr said Oak Tree had been close to an agreement to race at Hollywood Park this year if discussions with Santa Anita failed.

"Jack Liebau really helped us out," Barr said of the Hollywood Park president. "We'd gone pretty far down the road with them and the lease practically in hand. We felt bad about that."

Because of its proximity to Santa Anita, where many racing stables are based. Hollywood Park was the leading contender to host Oak Tree this year if a deal had not been reached with Santa Anita. Oak Tree officials held discussions in recent weeks with Del Mar and Hollywood Park about hosting a 2010 meeting.

Working with horsemen on stabling will be one of the principal issues for moving the dates to Del Mar in 2011.If Oak Tree moves to Del Mar in 2011, the track would likely host approximately 13 weeks of racing that year -- seven during its traditional summer, and six weeks for Oak Tree from late September to early November.

The verbal agreement between Oak Tree and Santa Anita ends six weeks of confusion over the location of the Oak Tree meeting.

Stronach's Magna International voided its lease with Oak Tree in mid-May, shortly after Magna International took over the racetrack from another Stronach-controlled subsidiary, Magna Entertainment, which declared bankruptcy in 2009. No formal discussions took place in the ensuing weeks between Magna International and Oak Tree officials about a new lease. In early June, Magna chief executive officer Terry Mills advised Chillingworth to seek a "plan B or plan C" for a racing venue for his meeting.

Oak Tree officials, led by Chillingworth, rapidly began discussions with Del Mar and Hollywood Park to host a 2010 meeting, with Hollywood Park considered the leading contender.

The late decision on Tuesday for Oak Tree to remain at Santa Anita was received favorably by racing board chairman Keith Brackpool.

"I think it's the right short-term resolution," he said on Wednesday. "Oak Tree leaving Santa Anita, if it's going to happen, it should happen when all avenues have been exhausted. At least this way, it will be discussed in a broader context."