11/05/2003 12:00AM

Oak Tree: Meet of mixed blessings


ARCADIA, Calif. - The Oak Tree Racing Association wraps up business this weekend - still flushed and a little dizzy from the Breeders' Cup - by presenting the 14th rendition of the California Cup, a 10-race festival worth $1.3 million that offers a chance for Golden State owners and breeders to pat each other on the back.

It's a great party, and a grand way to showcase the best of what California breeders can produce, especially given the fact that the land they occupy could make them considerably more money if sold for other purposes, such as strip malls or industrial parks. Anyone who prefers the sight of 10 acres under pasture to another Home Depot owes these embattled breeders a debt of gratitude. The California Cup is a way to say thanks.

There will be good racing on Saturday, led by a $250,000 Cal Cup Classic set to attract California hero Sky Jack, winner of the race as a 4-year-old in 2000. That impressive effort - part of a Laffit Pincay five-winner day - launched Sky Jack's career as a major stakes winner of such events as the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Longacres Mile.

A big day on Saturday, in terms of handle and attendance, will go a long way toward helping Oak Tree sign off with a smile. It has been a meet of mixed blessings, good news mingled with bad.

Certainly, as host of the 20th Breeders' Cup, Oak Tree and Santa Anita can feel like they put on a rousing show. Fans who turned out on Breeders' Cup Day will remember the performances of High Chaparral, Falbrav, Six Perfections, Islington, and the horses of Richard Mandella long after the taste of those eternal lines of traffic and concessions fades away.

The Breeders' Cup preview days were grand as well, presenting two weekends' worth of top-class racing at the beginning of the meet. Unfortunately, the blue-collar days in between big events fell far short of financial expectations. Oak Tree's business is off "significantly," in the words of Executive Vice President Sherwood Chillingworth, and he is not sure why.

"Del Mar had a fantastic meet, and the Pomona fair was up 10 percent," Chillingworth said. "We thought we were on that trajectory. It didn't happen that way. As a result, we ended up significantly overpaid on our purses."

According to Chillingworth, that overpayment was on its way to the "$300,000 to $500,000" level. Oak Tree's solution was to cut purses by 10 percent for the final two weeks of the meet, with the overnights and stakes taking proportional hits.

The major casualty, at least from a public relations standpoint, was the cancellation of the $200,000 Las Palmas Handicap, a 1 1/8-mile race on the grass for fillies and mares, which had been scheduled for Sunday's closing-day program. This is a venerable race, dating back to Oak Tree's inaugural meeting of 1969, with a colorful history.

Female turf Champions Estrapade, Outstandingly, Wandesta, and Golden Apples have won the Las Palmas. Charlie Whittingham thought enough of the Las Palmas to win it five times, including the 1994 running with Aube Indienne. Kostroma, the fiery Irish mare, set a world record for nine furlongs when she won the 1991 Las Palmas in 1:43.92. Blink and you missed it.

Its rich pedigree earned the Las Palmas a Grade 2 rating from the Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. When it comes to the marketing of mares and their offspring, Grade 2 black type is important to owners and breeders. To have an opportunity suddenly wiped off the map is serious business.

It also hurts fans, who are ceaselessly entertained by California's filly and mare grass division. Year in and out, no stakes group provides more value for the purse dollar. This year alone there have been any number of memorable encounters, highlighted by the four-way charge in the Ramona Handicap, in which Megahertz got home just ahead of a three-horse dead heat for second, and a slam-bang Yellow Ribbon featuring Tates Creek, Musical Chimes, and Crazy Ensign. The Las Palmas promised to follow suit.

With only 32 days of racing, the Oak Tree meet suffers from a compressed set of fiscal pressures. When times are flush, there is no sweat. When things go bad, there is precious little time to adjust, even though this particular association is defined as not-for-profit.

Since the announcement was made cutting purses and canning the Las Palmas, Oak Tree directors have found themselves in the uncomfortable position of apologizing for a decision that cuts so close to the interests of owners and breeders. These are people who value the integrity of a stakes program that delivers on its advertised product.

Even more troubling, it is the Oak Tree Racing Association - with its mission statement motto as a meet run "for horsemen by horsemen" - that figured to be the last management team to slash a major, traditional stakes race from the calendar because of a shortfall in handle projections. If it can happen at Oak Tree, it can happen anywhere, at any meet.