08/20/2010 1:17PM

Oak Tree, Hollywood Park begin planning for meet

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A day after the California Horse Racing Board rejected the Oak Tree Racing Association’s plan to race at Santa Anita this fall because of concern from horsemen over the safety of the racing surface, officials with Oak Tree and Hollywood Park intensified the process of moving the meeting to Hollywood Park for the first time.

Hollywood Park will host the Oak Tree meeting from Sept. 29 to Oct. 31, pending approval of a racing license. The racing board is expected to meet to discuss the license in early September. Both Hollywood Park president Jack Liebau and Oak Tree executive vice president Sherwood Chillingworth said they do not expect any difficulty in obtaining a license.

“I’ve started talking to Hollywood Park already,” Chillingworth said after Thursday’s racing board meeting. “It would have been better if we’d done this a month ago, but this isn’t landing a man on the moon. You have horses, you have barns, you have a track. It will take a lot of work.”

Liebau said that Hollywood Park has launched the logistical work of hosting the meeting, such as issuing stall applications for stable space.

Liebau said there are approximately 2,835 Thoroughbreds at Southern California tracks, of which 2,000 are active. He said that 1,900 to 2,000 can be accommodated at Hollywood Park, while the rest will be based at Fairplex Park in Pomona or the San Luis Rey Downs training center in northern San Diego county.

Santa Anita Park is not expected to be open for training until December, although those details have not been solidified, according to Scott Daruty, a racing executive with Santa Anita’s parent company, MI Developments.

On Wednesday, MI Developments chairman Frank Stronach committed to installing a dirt track at Santa Anita for the winter-spring meeting that begins Dec. 26. At the time, Stronach said construction would begin at the conclusion of the Oak Tree meeting on Oct. 31, but that timeline was made obsolete Thursday when leaders of the Thoroughbred Owners of California and California Thoroughbred Trainers spoke in opposition of running the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita, citing concerns over rocks in the Pro-Ride synthetic surface and overall inconsistencies.

The racing board voted 6-0 not to approve a license for the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting, since the racing association did not have an agreement with horsemen. Santa Anita will be the first track in Southern California to remove a synthetic track.

Daruty, who has spoken before the board in the past on issues pertaining to MI Developments, said after Thursday’s meeting that Santa Anita is well under way on the transition to a conventional dirt surface, conducting engineering and design work and acquiring materials. He said the absence of an Oak Tree meeting this fall will have only a slight affect on the timeline.

“It might mean a couple of weeks of extra time,” he said.

Stronach told the racing board Thursday that he wants the track installed by early December.

In coming weeks, there are numerous other issues related to the Oak Tree at Hollywood Park meeting that must be resolved, such as finalizing purses, publishing a stakes schedule, and determining how extensively the turf course can be used. After the Oak Tree meeting ends, Hollywood Park will run its traditional fall meeting from Nov. 4 through Dec. 19, meaning the track will host 12 straight weeks of racing.

Liebau said the turf course should be in better condition during the Oak Tree dates because of more favorable weather in October than later in the autumn.

“We will be able to run all the stakes” on turf, he said. “We would run one or two on weekdays and two or three on weekends.”

An Oak Tree at Hollywood Park meeting was initially discussed in May after another Stronach-controlled subsidiary Magna Entertainment declared bankruptcy. When MI Developments took over Santa Anita from Magna Entertainment, the lease between Santa Anita and Oak Tree was voided. Oak Tree explored moving its meeting to Del Mar or Hollywood Park, but stayed at Santa Anita after Stronach agreed in June to a one-year lease.