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After 30 Years, Still Solid as an Oak

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The founders of the Oak Tree Racing Assn.--Clement Hirsch and his associates--put up $1,000 apiece, just to get the stationery printed, but there was much more at stake when they unveiled a 20-day race meet at Santa Anita in the fall of 1969.

“If it didn’t work, we were to guarantee the losses,” said Bill Pascoe, who’s still a member of the Oak Tree board. “I guess you could say that we all had a little bit of cash, but if there had been huge losses, it might have cost us something like $200,000 or $300,000 apiece. It never came to that. We haven’t been in the red since we started.”

In fact, Oak Tree, a nonprofit, no-dividend operation that primarily plows its surpluses into the industry, such as for equine research at UC Davis, has contributed almost $13 million to racing-related causes. The 30th Oak Tree meet, a 32-day stand that includes several stakes that could be rungs to the $12-million Breeders’ Cup day at Churchill Downs on Nov. 7, opens today at 1 p.m. with a card that features the Autumn Days Handicap.

“I’m very optimistic,” said Sherwood Chillingworth, executive vice president of Oak Tree. “There’s much concern these days about supplying full fields to make the races attractive for the bettors, and even though the racing board took a racing day away from us for next year as part of its cutting-back philosophy, I think Oak Tree’s done better than many tracks recently. In the last five years, we’ve averaged about eight starters a race. Our opening-day card is a good one, and we’re hoping to sustain that all the way through.”

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Hirsch, Pascoe and veterinarian Jack Robbins--the last of the Oak Tree founders-- also are hoping along with Chillingworth for something else: an invitation from the Breeders’ Cup to host its showcase race day in 2000.

“That would be something, wouldn’t it, just in time for the millennium,” Pascoe said.

The Oak Tree group has staged two successful Breeders’ Cups, in 1986 and 1993. Next year’s Breeders’ Cup already has been allocated to Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla., and the only track standing in Oak Tree-Santa Anita’s way for 2000 would appear to be Belmont Park, which drew only 37,000--a Breeders’ Cup low--when the races were run there in 1995.

In 1969, when Oak Tree began, the Breeders’ Cup was 15 years away. Major fall racing in Southern California had failed miserably when Del Mar ran a one-shot second meeting in October 1967.

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That was about the time Hirsch, who had been breeding and racing horses in California for more than 20 years, began talking about assembling a group that would lease Santa Anita for a few weeks in the fall. Bob Strub, running Santa Anita, was enthusiastic, and his aide-de-camp, Fred Ryan, liked it even more. They would have been silly not to consider a way to extend the use of the rambling Arcadia plant.

The first time around, in 1968, the California Horse Racing Board said no thanks. The memory of the Del Mar disaster was too fresh, and the Western Harness Racing Assn. had its racing board supporters who didn’t warm to the idea of overlapping thoroughbreds at Santa Anita with trotters at Hollywood Park.

But the resilient Oak Tree group returned with a better plan, and the board awarded Hirsch and his cohorts 20 days at Santa Anita for October 1969.

As the meet approached, the parimutuel clerks’ union and Oak Tree were at loggerheads over a contract, and but for Bob Flour, the chairman of the racing board, talks might have broken off forever. Flour wanted those extra racing days at Santa Anita and didn’t want to see Hirsch’s brainchild go down in flames.

The inaugural Oak Tree meet was scheduled to start Oct. 3, but was delayed until Oct. 7 as a contract was hammered out. On a Tuesday afternoon, a crowd of 16,733 bet $1.4 million, jockey Rudy Rosales threatened to win all the races but stopped after the first three, and Hirsch’s vision went on unchecked.

By meet’s end, Rosales and Laffit Pincay, not long removed from his native Panama, had ridden 26 winners apiece; trainer Farrell Jones had saddled 16 winners in 20 days, and average crowds of 14,622 a day had shoved more than $29 million through the windows. Eleven years later, the season now having been stretched into November, the meet handle topped the $100-million mark.

“Now we’ve had the Breeders’ Cup,” Hirsch said. “And thanks to a wonderful idea from Lou Rowan, we’ve got the Cal Cup every year for our state-breds. We can be proud of the fact that we’ve helped the industry in so many ways--the people at Davis, the Winners Foundation [for recovering backstretch employees with substance-abuse problems], and more recently two new horse ambulances, one for Northern California and the other for down here.

“The same concept [nonprofit] is working at Del Mar. You see some of the old, established tracks around the country going by the wayside. Maybe the answer in some of those places, just to keep the game going, is to do what we did with Oak Tree.”

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Horse Racing Notes

Sunday’s $300,000 Oak Tree Turf Championship, at 1 1/4 miles, will be a rematch of the first three finishers in the Del Mar Handicap--Bonapartiste, River Bay and Military--and they may be joined by only two others, Amerique and Legend Of Russia. Trainer Ron McAnally, who has won the stake five times--three of them with John Henry to start the 1980s--will saddle Bonapartiste and Amerique.

Henri Chalhoub, who owns River Bay, didn’t like the way Alex Solis rode his horse at Del Mar, so trainer Bobby Frankel has hired Pat Day. . . . Oak Tree will offer a guaranteed $2-million pool for the pick six on Oct. 10 and Oct. 31, which is California Cup day.

Corey Nakatani will replace Jose Santos aboard Maxzene in Saturday’s $400,000 Flower Bowl Handicap at Belmont Park. . . . Victory Gallop, who underwent throat surgery Sunday, will miss the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont on Oct. 10, but is still a probable for the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 7.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Oak Tree Meeting

* Dates: 32-day season at Santa Anita, starting today and running through Nov. 9. Racing Wednesday through Sunday, plus Monday cards on Oct. 12 and Nov. 9.

* Post times: Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, 12:30 p.m. Oct. 31 (California Cup day), noon. Other days, 1 p.m.

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* Major races: $300,000 Oak Tree Turf Championship, Sunday; $200,000 Oak Leaf Stakes, Oct. 10; $200,000 Norfolk Stakes, $175,000 Lady’s Secret Breeders’ Cup Handicap, Oct. 11; $150,000 Las Palmas Handicap, Oct. 12; $500,000 Goodwood Breeders’ Cup Handicap, $150,000 Ancient Title Breeders’ Cup Handicap, Oct. 17; $250,000 Oak Tree Breeders’ Cup Mile, Oct. 18; $250,000 Oak Tree Derby, Nov. 1; $500,000 Yellow Ribbon Stakes, Nov. 8.

* Defending trainer champion: Bob Baffert (19 wins in 1997).

* Defending jockey champion: Gary Stevens (23 wins).


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