06/17/2014 12:21PM

Pleasanton meet begins new era for Oak Tree

Courtesy of Oak Tree
Sherwood Chillingworth is Oak Tree Racing Association’s director and executive vice president.

Thursday marks the start of a new era in Northern California racing, as Oak Tree at Pleasanton becomes a reality with the first day of racing at the Alameda County Fair.

The Oak Tree Racing Association, the not-for-profit group that has provided high-quality racing and millions of dollars of support to the industry – “horsemen helping horsemen” is its motto – as well as the local community, arrives at the oldest one-mile racetrack in America. The group has been looking for a home since Santa Anita ended ties with Oak Tree following the 2009 meet.

Chris Korby, the executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs, approached Sherwood Chillingworth, Oak Tree’s director and executive vice president, following a California Horse Racing Board meeting one year ago.

“Chris grabbed me by the shoulder and asked, ‘Have you ever thought of coming to Northern California?’ ” Chillingworth said.

Oak Tree, CARF, and the Alameda County Fair began meeting, and California Horse Racing Board chairman Chuck Winner offered support as well.

“This brings together partners with so many strengths,” Korby said. “Both the Alameda County Fair and Oak Tree have long traditions.”

[Oak Tree at Pleasanton opening day: Get PPs, watch Thursday's card live]

“It’s been a great pleasure working with the Alameda County Fair board and staff,” said Oak Tree president John Barr. “There have been no real disagreements. They’ve jumped in and contributed more than we expected.”

Oak Tree’s arrival at Pleasanton has led to the first two $100,000 stakes in the track’s history, the Oak Tree Handicap at 1 1/8 miles for 3-year-olds and up Saturday and the Oak Tree Distaff, a six-furlong race for California-bred fillies and mares June 28. In addition, the $75,000 Oak Tree Sprint will be held July 4.

Oak Tree has helped to double the meet’s marketing budget and contributed to racetrack improvements as the fair board increased its contributions to the effort.

The track’s popular Turf Terrace was doubled in size, as was the winner’s circle, which was turned around to face the grandstand. The cozy directors’ room also was doubled in size to provide added room for directors, guests, and sponsors. The grandstand apron has been repaved and smoothed.

The work was done in-house using materials already at the fairgrounds, according to Alameda County Fair chief executive Jerome Hoban.

The Oak Tree brand has attracted interest from horsemen in Southern California and other states who have ignored Pleasanton in the past.

Overnight purses have been raised and are higher than those at Golden Gate Fields, including $37,000 for the first allowance condition and $27,000 for maiden special weight races. Even bottom-level types will run for $9,000 purses.

“We have a strong bottom and have helped the middle and top in our overnight purses in addition to the stakes program,” said Tom Doutrich, racing secretary for the CARF fairs.

Larry Swartzlander, CARF’s chief operating officer, noted that TVG and HRTV have promised to show all Oak Tree at Pleasanton Thoroughbred races.

The meet also will debut the Gold Rush Pick Six, a 20-cent pick six wager based on the Gulfstream Rainbow Six model that could lead to big carryovers. A 20-cent Super High 5 also could be a boon to handle.

Oak Tree at Pleasanton will continue popular events such as the win-place-show contest and putting contest. It is even adding a junior putting contest this year. It also will implement an “Owner for a Race” program, with a lucky fan getting a paddock visit, a trip to the winner’s circle, and a photo.

Oak Tree at Pleasanton T-shirts, caps, and binoculars and vintage Oak Tree beer steins will be giveaways.

Dave Rodman, the track announcer at Pimlico, will call races early in the meet as regular announcer Frank Mirahmadi completes his assignment calling races at Santa Anita.