Updated on 10/08/2010 2:33PM

Oak Tree puts down new roots


Of all the things wrong with California racing, the Oak Tree Racing Association is not one of them.

And yet here they are, orphaned and buffeted about, finally landing, after a spring and summer of rank discontent, at the doorstep of Los Angeles International Airport, as if the next stop is a ticket to anywhere but home.

Saturday will be a strange day, arriving at Hollywood Park full of anticipation for races like the Yellow Ribbon, the Norfolk Stakes and the Goodwood. The Lady’s Secret is also on the card, a race that was for a brief period of time and zero runnings referred to as the Zenyatta Stakes. Thank goodness Lady’s Secret is back, and, even better, so is the real Zenyatta, who will be going for her 19th victory without defeat.

Saturday’s stakes package – along with Sunday’s Clement L. Hirsch on the turf and the Oak Leaf – affords Californians their springboard to the Breeders’ Cup races at Churchill Downs, Nov. 5 and 6. It remains to be seen whether or not there will be the same trend of success, going from synthetics in California to eastern dirt, that has been achieved already this season by Lookin At Lucky, Blind Luck, Concord Point, Evening Jewel, Hurricane Ike, American Lion and, yep, Zenyatta.

Meanwhile, local fans will find out what it was like to have watched the United Nations and Matchmaker move down the road from Atantic City to Monmouth Park, for the Arlington Million to be staged at Woodbine, or for the Belmont Stakes to be run from 1963 through 1967 at – are you sitting down – Aqueduct, instead of Belmont Park.

Each of those cases were triggered by some sort of major trauma. Atlantic City was buried by casino competition. Arlington had burned to the ground and was being rebuilt. Belmont Park, the grand old dame of the New York sport, was undergoing a massive renovation. Racing people coped, moved on, and in some ways ended up in a better place.

By contrast, on Saturday afternoon Oak Tree’s home for the past 41 years will be sitting across town in Arcadia, pristinely free of horseflesh, its grandstand and accompanying mountain view intact and as majestic as ever.

Let’s be clear about one thing, though. There was never going to be an Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita Park this year. Between Frank Stronach’s opposition to a tenant association renting his Santa Anita property, coupled with the increasingly activist segment of a trainers’ population weary of Santa Anita’s synthetic main track, the Oak Tree Racing Association was surrounded. And for all their personal accomplishments, the directors of the Oak Tree board were neither prepared nor inclined to play the nasty hardball required to maintain the continuity of their operation.

Scott Daruty, representing the Stronach-controlled MI Developments, testified at a recent California Horse Racing Board meeting that “MID had no desire to put Oak Tree out of business.”

The scary part of that comment is that Daruty was answering a question not asked. In fact, in the three-dimensional game of checkers being played by Stronach and his company, the complete disappearance of a charitable organization like Oak Tree would work in their favor, since there would be one fewer entity applying for racing dates. Never forget, as that great handicapper and part-time economist Adam Smith wrote, “To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers.”

For cold comfort, the directors of Oak Tree can cling to kind statements made earlier by members of the state’s racing board, including its chairman, Keith Brackpool.

“We believe that Oak Tree is vital to the industry, the contributions it makes to the industry are paramount, they’re not replaceable,” Brackpool said earlier this year, when Santa Anita terminated its lease with Oak Tree. “And we absolutely believe that Oak Tree must continue.”

At the most recent board meeting, Brackpool hinted that Oak Tree would most likely be operating again in 2011 at Hollywood Park. Beyond next year, there has been talk of an Oak Tree meet at Del Mar, which presumably would offer the organization the long-term stability of leasing a state-owned facility.

Del Mar, however, never has enthusiastically embraced the idea of extending its dates either in the direction of the entrenched Del Mar Fair in early July, or after the meet closes, around Labor Day. Blame it on bitter institutional memory. More racing at Del Mar did not work in 1967, when a 20-day horsemen’s meet died a virtually anonymous death, and it did not work in 1980 and 1981, when Del Mar was granted a couple weeks of September county fair racing that went largely unattended.

In fact, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with running major races at Hollywood Park in October. Anyone who suggests otherwise needs to check the date on their iPad. The culture is now chock-full of disposable traditions, from movie stars to political party lines.

Furthermore, in Hollywood Park Oak Tree may have found the perfect partner for these troubled times. While the real estate company that owns Hollywood Park postpones its development plans as the economy makes its slow turn, like some massive aircraft carrier at sea, an extra four to five weeks of racing is nothing less than found money. Who knows? Hollywood might even want to stay in the racing business a little longer.

At the same time, the rest of the industry can only hope Hollywood Park’s operators will revisit their fatalistic attitude toward the decline of ontrack business and perhaps find inspiration in the addition of Oak Tree to its portfolio. If nothing else, the Oak Tree brand is good publicity, which is always something the game can use.