10/29/2003 1:00AM

Purses hit 10 percent; fires, strike blamed

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Overnight purses for the remainder of the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting have been cut 10 percent because of lower than projected handle figures, executives said Wednesday.

The development is a setback to the Oak Tree Racing Association, which hosted the Breeders' Cup last Saturday.

In addition, the $200,000 Las Palmas Handicap on Nov. 9, a Grade 2 race for fillies and mares over 1 1/8 miles on turf, has been replaced by an overnight handicap.

The decrease goes into effect Friday and covers seven of the eight remaining days of the meeting, which ends Nov. 9. The purses for the 10-race California Cup program on Nov. 8 are not affected because of a previous agreement.

Sherwood Chillingworth, the executive vice-president of the Oak Tree Racing Association, said a combination of factors caused the reduction. He said unseasonably warm weather through October, an ongoing mass transit strike, and the recent wildfires in Southern California have hampered business.

"We had great expectations at this meeting, with Del Mar having a boom year and Pomona up 10 percent," said Chillingworth. "I thought we were on the same trajectory. We made some aggressive assumptions on handle, which didn't occur. We had the heat the whole season, the fires, and the bus strike."

Attendance and handle comparisons with the 2002 meeting are difficult because of Saturday's Breeders' Cup, which drew an ontrack crowd of 51,648 that contributed to an overall handle $120.8 million.

Chillingworth said Breeders' Cup success does not directly benefit California horsemen.

"We get a fee from that but it doesn't work into the purse structure," he said.

Chillingworth declined to reveal the amount of the purse overpayment that has caused the purse reduction.

"We're trying to figure out precisely," he said. "We lost ground, basically last week, with the bus strikes and the fires."

Mechanics that service buses and subways in Los Angeles have been on strike since Oct. 14. Chillingworth said the track relies on the bus system and the recently introduced Gold Line rail to draw people to Santa Anita.

The Southern California fires have led to the temporary closure of three offtrack betting locations in San Diego county - Barona, Sycuan, and Viejas. All three are operated in facilities that also house Native American casinos.

"People aren't in the mood for betting," Chillingworth said.