09/25/2006 12:00AM

To suit Breeders' Cup, biggest races all come early

Among the star horses who will prep for the Breeders' Cup early in the Oak Tree meet are The Tin Man (above). Cambiocorsa heads a field of female turf sprinters in the opening day feature, the Sen. Ken Maddy Handicap.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The specter of the Breeders' Cup either transfigured or disfigured autumn racing in Southern California, and no meet takes the brunt harder than the Oak Tree Racing Association.

Oak Tree begins its 26-day meet Wednesday at Santa Anita with a schedule that is front-loaded with eight graded stakes - a prep for each BC race - the first two weekends of the meet. No saving the best for last. With the Breeders' Cup only 38 days away, California horses need to prep - now.

Oak Tree executive vice president Sher-wood Chillingworth admitted the schedule "burns up our best races early." But he added, "We think it's our obligation to California to provide the best venue for horses prepping for the Breeders' Cup, even though it hurts us financially."

The challenge for Oak Tree is to sustain momentum beyond the first two weeks. Oak Tree will do it two ways - the $1.3 million, eight-stakes California Cup on Oct. 28; and closing day, Oct. 29, when overnight purses are boosted 15 percent in an effort to generate maximum field size and end the meet with a bang.

The season starts that way: Every early-meet stakes has Breeders' Cup ramifications with one exception. That is the Grade 3 Sen. Ken Maddy Handicap on Wednesday for filly and mare turf sprinters. Cambiocorsa puts her 7-for-7 downhill record on the line for a purse of $100,000. More significant racing begins Saturday with a Grade 1 tripleheader.

Grade 1 winners will be favored in each - Point Ashley in the Oak Leaf, a prep race for the BC Juvenile Fillies; The Tin Man in the Clement L. Hirsch, a prep race for the BC Turf; and Wait a While in the Yellow Ribbon Stakes, a prep race for the BC Filly and Mare Turf. On Sunday, BC Distaff hopefuls run in the Grade 2 Lady's Secret.

The second weekend begins Oct. 7 with BC Classic winner Lava Man scheduled for the Goodwood Handicap; BC Mile contender Aragorn in the Oak Tree Mile; and BC Sprint candidate Bordonaro in the Ancient Title. On Oct. 8, BC Juvenile candidate Horse Greeley runs in the Norfolk Stakes.

Even with slim pickings the remainder of the meet, the objective will be accomplished for Oak Tree, a not-for-profit group run by horsemen. "Our responsibility," Chillingworth said, "is to try to help the industry. In the process of doing that, we sometimes have to penalize ourselves. That's our mission, and we take it seriously."

The distorted stakes schedule means the meet eases toward a quiet climax, although little in Southern California racing can be referred to these days as calm. The circuit is undergoing rapid change, including an artificial racing surface at Hollywood Park almost unanimously embraced by horsemen, though not a single race has been run over it.

The jockey colony will shift Thursday with the possible return of Patrick Valenzuela, whom the California Horse Racing Board is not allowing to ride until he provides documentation explaining a recent abscence of more than a month. Like him or not, Valenzuela's impact changes the sport's complexion. Victor Espinoza, the circuit's leading rider and always reliable, is less dominant when Valenzuela rides.

As for the future of Oak Tree, its Santa Anita lease with the Los Angeles Turf Club expires after the 2009 fall meet. The chairman of LATC is Frank Stronach, who has not embraced the concept of leasing the facility to a not-for-profit group such as Oak Tree.

"Stronach has made it quite clear that he'd rather not have us around," Chillingworth said.

With three years remaining on the lease, there is still time for Oak Tree and LATC to make peace.

Meanwhile, Oak Tree has begun a feasibility study to determine locale possibilities for fall dates if no deal is reached with LATC. Those options may include a fall meet at Del Mar, or Los Alamitos if that track expands and Hollywood Park stops racing.

The transfigured environment has changed racing; the Breeders' Cup has changed autumn. These days, there is a different, corporate attitude.

"Ten years ago, it was kind of a fraternalistic group that tried to find what's best for everybody," Chillingworth said.

"Now you're trying to protect your position. You have to go around with a flak jacket on."

Off with a bang

SaturdayYellow Ribbon Stakes1$400,000
Hirsch Turf Championship1250,000
Oak Leaf BC Stakes1250,000
SundayLady's Secret BC Handicap2250,000
Oct. 7Goodwood BC Handicap2500,000
Ancient Title BC Stakes1250,000
Oak Tree BC Mile2250,000
Oct. 8Norfolk BC Stakes2250,000
Oct. 14Oak Tree Derby2150,000
Oct. 28California Cup Day
Oct. 29Las Palmas Handicap2150,000

At a glance

RACING SCHEDULE: Wednesday through Oct. 29. Dark Mondays and Tuesdays, except Oct. 9.

POST TIME: 1 p.m., weekdays; 12:30 p.m., weekends and Oct. 9; noon on Oct. 28-29.

ADMISSION: General $5, Clubhouse $8.50, Turf Club $20. Parking: General $4, preferred $6, valet $10.

LOCATION: South of 210 Freeway, 14 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, 285 W. Huntington Dr., Arcadia, Calif.

PHONE: (626) 574-7223.

INTERNET: http://www.oaktreeracing.com