09/29/2002 11:00PM

As usual, Oak Tree turns up the heat


ARCADIA, Calif. - Los Angeles has been on fire again, which means it must be time for the Oak Tree meet.

It has become an angry ritual of early autumn, devastating homes and lives, as brush fires turn the skies surrounding Arcadia to hazy gray. That was ash falling like warm snow on Santa Anita last week from the 36,000-acre blaze in Angeles National Forest, less than 20 miles to the east. The fire laid waste to more than 70 structures and threatened horsey communities Glendora and San Dimas.

"The house we used to own is about 150 yards from the fire," said Glendora resident Alex Solis, who still lives in the area. "Wayne Lukas has a house near there. Even where we are now, we could still see the flames."

It was the same scene in October of 1978 when Mandeville Canyon burned to the west, turning the setting sun into a sick orange ball, while the hills of Sierra Madre ignited in full view of Santa Anita's grandstand patrons.

A total of 38,000 acres burned and 200 homes were lost.

In 1981, John Henry raced to victory in an Oak Tree Invitational cloaked in the eerie light cast by smoke and ash from fire in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Then, in 1993, the early arrivals for the 10th Breeders' Cup extravaganza were greeted by a wildfire that rimmed the L.A. basin, eventually covering 300 square miles and taking 1,000 buildings over a terrifying 10 days. In Sierra Madre alone, 151 homes were destroyed.

By this week, fire officials figured they had the fire under control. The weather turned cooler, mornings brought dew, and some light rain even fell, which meant that Oak Tree would be underway without serious distraction.

Other than the Breeders' Cup, that is.

From 1969 through 1980, the Oak Tree meet was the last stop on the Southern California circuit, giving the big races a regal flair. The Oak Tree and the Yellow Ribbon lured the adventurous from Europe. The Norfolk and the Oak Leaf asked 2-year-olds to prove themselves beyond a mile. The results were significant, because they were the last word of the season.

Then, in quick succession, came the Hollywood fall meet in 1981 and the Breeders' Cup in 1984. Suddenly, Oak Tree was pushed into the background, its major events reduced to Hollywood previews or Breeders' Cup preps.

"The Breeders' Cup hit a lot of meets that way," said Dr. Jack Robbins, a founding director and president of the Oak Tree Racing Association. "But in our case it was especially tough, because we've got such a short meet. We've got to front load the big races - just like the Europeans did with their big guns on Sunday in the Ryder Cup."

Robbins described his attitude as "cautious" when asked how the meet shapes up. His concern is not based upon shareholder pressures, nor fear of losing his job. Robbins wants the Oak Tree meet to do well because when Oak Tree wins, the sport profits through its support of equine research and backstretch welfare. Since 1969, the Oak Tree Racing Association has contributed $18 million to such endeavors.

The original intention of the Oak Tree meet was to give fans a special reason to attend the races on each of its five autumn weekends. Such a philosophy makes good promotional sense, while at the same time it creates the perception that there is some continuity of class in the racing product.

Since 1984, however, Oak Tree has been forced to present an artificial "festival" of racing at the start of the meet, playing all of its best cards right out of the box. There is no chance to build any attendance momentum, and only two or three days to promote the blowout weekend.

So buckle up. By late Sunday afternoon, just about every local horse with an ounce of Breeders' Cup class will have been led over to the Santa Anita paddock. The four stakes on Saturday and three on Sunday - plus the Lady's Secret Handicap on opening day, Wednesday - mirror the eight on the Breeders' Cup card, to be run Oct. 26 at Arlington Park.

Whether the horses in these races will be good enough to win in Chicago remains to be seen. There have been 23 Breeders' Cup winners to emerge from races at Oak Tree. But don't be too impressed. At the 13 Breeders' Cups held outside California - with 94 races in all - only 10 winners prepped in an Oak Tree race. Three of those have been the last three winners of the Breeders' Cup Mile.

Such stats tend to fade into the background, however, when confronted by celebrities in the flesh. The Lady's Secret on opening day will lure Azeri, and any day she runs is a good day. Kona Gold runs in the Ancient Title on Saturday. Later in the day, the Yellow Ribbon matches Golden Apples against champion Banks Hill, who has come west in search of firm turf. On Sunday, Momentum heads the field for the Goodwood.

So the hard part is over. The stars are aligned. Now, if Oak Tree can just hold back the fire and the rain.