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As Oak Tree Opens, Struggle Continues

Times Staff Writer

The Oak Tree Racing Assn. launched its 36th season at Santa Anita on Wednesday with formful horses, stepped-up security and hopes for a better overall meet than last year.

There was no Breeders’ Cup buzz -- that road-show attraction from last year having moved on to Texas -- and the main tote board repeatedly malfunctioned, but the bettors, 10,665 of them, somehow kept their concentration and tried to hammer out an occasional profit.

One way to overcome a string of short-priced winners came in the sixth race, when a favorite on top and 70-1 and 80-1 shots in the next two slots added up to a $1 trifecta payoff of almost $5,000.

“I expect a good meet,” said Sherwood Chillingworth, executive vice president of the not-for-profit Oak Tree group, which leases the track from Santa Anita. “We’ve got a larger horse inventory, and after we run all the Breeders’ Cup preps early in the meet, I’m optimistic that a real strong [California Cup day] will strengthen us at the tail end.”

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A year ago, Chillingworth was salivating as Oak Tree prepared to play host to the Breeders’ Cup for the third time. Despite 99-degree heat, Breeders’ Cup day was a financial and aesthetic success, but business lagged the rest of the season. Oak Tree’s average daily attendance, discounting the Breeders’ Cup, was less than 9,000 and on-track betting fell more than 3%.

The Oak Tree season mirrored racing’s long-running problem: what to do between the big days to keep the sport humming. The Triple Crown series, in May and early June, and the Breeders’ Cup races, in late October or early November, produce large crowds and respectable television numbers, but otherwise racing wants for support.

A recent study by a market-research firm in Washington, D.C., said that 48 million people “are interested in going to a racetrack.” The challenge for a fragmented industry leadership is to spread these millions of fans over the year, instead of only piquing their interest for the short term.

Seldom has racing’s hierarchy been in such disarray. The National Thoroughbred Racing Assn. lost its commissioner, Tim Smith, this month, and while D.G. Van Clief, heretofore synonymous with the Breeders’ Cup, has moved into that spot, the organization is still searching for a chief executive.

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The New York Racing Assn., which operates Belmont Park, Saratoga and Aqueduct, is being run by a lame-duck chairman who has been under heavy political fire. Smith was offered that job but declined.

At the Magna Entertainment Corp., whose many racetracks stretch from Santa Anita to Gulfstream Park in South Florida, it is business as usual -- executives coming and going, a disgruntled former executive suing the company and Frank Stronach, the Magna chairman, predicting bigger things, such as a takeover of the New York tracks when their state charter expires in a couple of years.

Stronach’s shoot-from-the-hip style has landed a couple of amusement-park veterans and a former jockey, Chris McCarron, as executives at Santa Anita.

After the NTRA spent tens of millions of dollars on advertising campaigns under Smith (remember “Go, Baby, Go!”?), Van Clief suggested at the group’s recent annual meeting that the cupboard might be bare.

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“I’m not so sure branding worked as well as we would have liked,” he said. “We don’t think that we’ve been getting uniform bang for our buck. We may deploy our resources elsewhere.”

The premature loss of Smarty Jones, the sixth horse in the last eight years to come within one win of sweeping the elusive Triple Crown, to the breeding shed is a setback that not even the shrewdest marketing tactics can overcome.

Rival trainers, who would have been hard-pressed to beat Smarty Jones had he stayed on the track, were as crestfallen as the fans.

“It’s disappointing,” New York trainer Pat Kelly said this week, “that Smarty’s off everybody’s radar screen now.”

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Kelly trains a 6-year-old gelding, Evening Attire, who will try to win Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. Only a few horses are expected to run in the $1-million race, a prep for the Breeders’ Cup at Lone Star Park on Oct. 30. Another gelding who might join the field is Funny Cide, who, like Smarty Jones this year, won the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness before losing in the Belmont.

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Belleski is five for five on grass at Santa Anita, and seven for 14 overall, after her half-length win over Intercontinental in the Sen. Ken Maddy Handicap.... The Cover Gal, the other stake on the opening-day card, went to Short Route, who gave trainer Joe Herrick his first stakes win and jockey Cesar DeAlba his first stakes win at Santa Anita.... Rene Douglas, riding regularly in Southern California for the first time since 1996, won two races. Douglas, 37, is nearing his 3,000th career win.... Gary Stevens -- who hopes to ride The Cliff’s Edge in the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Saturday and who also has mounts in two other Grade I stakes on the Belmont Park card -- is being hounded by a 20-day suspension that he received in Italy in May. Stevens, who appealed the ban, won’t know until today whether he will be named on the New York horses.


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