10/26/2006 11:00PM

Two outfits like night and day


ARCADIA, Calif. - Talk about yin and yang. The handoff from the Oak Tree Racing Association's closing day on Sunday at Santa Anita to the opening of the Bay Meadows Land Company's meeting at Hollywood Park on Wednesday represents the starkest contrast in California's current crop of racetrack operators.

Oak Tree is run by a group of horse owners who would like nothing more than to give every nickel they make to equine veterinary research and racing's various charitable organizations.

The Bay Meadows Land Co. is owned by Stockbridge Capital Partners, a real estate investment fund whose management answers to such diverse investor groups as the Pennsylvania Public School Employees and the California Public Employees Retirement System, better known as CalPERS.

Oak Tree is not in the real estate business. It owns an equine ambulance, but no real estate. Rather, it operates under a lease arrangement with Magna Entertainment Corp., the owners of Santa Anita Park, and pays annual rent based on parimutuel handle for its use of the facility.

Bay Meadows Land owns not only Hollywood Park, but also the 83 remaining acres of Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo. The company's master plan for the razing of Bay Meadows and the development of the site into housing, office space and a 17-acre park has been approved unanimously by the San Mateo City Council.

Oak Tree's operators would like nothing more than to remain at Santa Anita and run their five weeks of sport, which features such significant Breeders' Cup preps as the Norfolk, the Oak Leaf, the Goodwood and the Yellow Ribbon.

BMLC's management announced upon its purchase of Hollywood Park last summer that the track could be closed and the property developed in three years if there was not legislation forthcoming that would either legalize slot machines at California racetracks or guarantee some sort of financial subsidy from the tax revenues generated by Native American casinos.

No question, business could be better. After a so-so Del Mar meet in terms of ontrack and total handle figures, Oak Tree management was braced for the worst. It should be good news for the entire California industry, therefore, that Oak Tree's numbers have been up, and that Sunday's closing day program should take the meeting out with a bang.

"We've done exceptionally well," said Sherwood Chillingworth, Oak Tree's executive vice-president. "Last year we struggled the first couple of weeks. This year, we were up from the very first day."

Like just about every major emporium in North America, Oak Tree is still saddled with those bleak Wednesday and Thursday crowds, where everyone can pretty much show up in one busload and they all know each other's names. That has not prevented the Oak Tree meet from being up in ontrack handle and attendance, as well as offtrack handle. Chillingworth was asked the reason for the positive trend.

"We spent more money on marketing than we normally do," Chillingworth. "I think it really paid off."

Oak Tree also used a $50,000 allotment from the California Marketing Committee - whose funds are derived from the simulcast betting network - and plugged it into Sunday's closing-day purses. Call it a coincidence, but the 10-race program attracted eight fields of 11 or more, including an entertaining Morvich Handicap down the hillside turf course featuring the honest veteran Buckland Manor, owned by John Toffan and Oak Tree director Trudy McCaffery.

Oak Tree's current lease to operate at Santa Anita Park runs through the end of its 2009 meet. There would seem to be very little chance that the lease won't be renewed, especially since Oak Tree pays between $4 million and $5 million as tenants and covers all management expenses for the meet. For Magna, it's found money.

"We're having very good talks with the MEC people, and we're hopeful we can reach an agreement," Chillingworth said. "To be honest, though, it should be the other way around. They should be after us. I've taken the position that, okay, if they ever don't want us here, Dr. [Edward] Allred would love to have us if he opens Los Alamitos to major Thoroughbred racing. And they'd love to have us at Del Mar."

Compared with Oak Tree's future, Hollywood Park's is shrouded in speculation. Recent assurances from Hollywood president Jack Liebau have tried to soften that "three year" drop-dead date for slot machines, but the fact remains that Bay Meadows is a "land company," not a "racing association."

To their credit, BMLC did take the step to replace Hollywood Park's degenerating main track with what is being called an "engineered racing surface," better known as Cushion Track. Initial reviews from horsemen training at Hollywood have been positive, and Wednesday's card will see the opening of the California front in the artificial track revolution, with Del Mar and Golden Gate Fields already committed to follow.

Beyond that, the most exciting development of the late season Hollywood meet is the return of such features as the Hollywood Derby, the Matriarch, the Turf Cup and the Citation Handicap, all of them scrapped last year when a newly sodded grass course failed to grow. Thankfully, no one rushed out to invest in artificial turf.