Santa Anita will go back to the dirt

The news Wednesday was that a dirt track racing surface will return to the major Southern California horse track. Several other issues remained unclear, mired in the politics and agendas of the sport.

Frank Stronach, owner of Santa Anita’s racetrack, told an audience of about 250 that he would install a dirt racing surface immediately after the Oak Tree meeting ends Oct. 31 at Santa Anita. He assured them it would be completed in time for the major thoroughbred meeting in Southern California that begins Dec. 26.

“When Oak Tree ends, we will move right in,” Stronach said. “We think we can have it finished by the first week in December.”

His announcement was greeted by applause.

The background is that, by mandate of the California Horse Racing Board — reacting to a rash of horse breakdowns in Southern California and, perhaps the high-profile breakdown of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness — all California tracks were to install synthetic surfaces by the next season. All did, with the exception of Bay Meadows in Northern California, which was ceasing operations anyway and wasn’t about to incur the estimated $10 million to install the new surface, and Los Alamitos, which saw it as an edict for thoroughbred tracks and kept racing.

Many horsemen quickly grew to hate the surfaces — the exact type of synthetic varied in brand and performance from Santa Anita to Hollywood Park to Del Mar — and sought a return to good old-fashioned dirt. In four years that movement quickly went from grumble to groundswell.

Stronach, an Austrian-born businessman who made a fortune in the auto parts business in Canada and went from owning and racing horses to buying tracks, became the face in the bull’s-eye for many horsemen. His track was the Great Race Place. It had the most tradition, the best dates.

Yet Stronach was a slippery target and seen by many horsemen as an eccentric. Some thought they had promises for a return to dirt in the past, but nothing happened. He took his Canadian company through bankruptcy and retained ownership of Santa Anita under a different name. In May, he abruptly canceled the lease for the Oak Tree meeting, undercutting efforts of the Breeders’ Cup board to return that prestigious annual event to Santa Anita during future Oak Tree dates on a semi-permanent basis.

Oak Tree is a nonprofit organization highly regarded in racing. It has held its meeting at Santa Anita since 1969. At a June meeting of the CHRB, Stronach relented — although the Breeders’ Cup damage was already done — and said that Oak Tree could come back for one more year, the meeting scheduled to start Sept. 29. At that point, Oak Tree had been set to move to Hollywood Park.

That all changed when Stronach relented. Now, it might change again.

Recently, a group of owners and trainers questioned the safety of Santa Anita’s track. The CHRB hired a track-surface expert, Mick Peterson, who did some testing two weeks ago. Thursday, the CHRB will release at least some portion of Peterson’s findings, and if the report is negative on the safety concerns, Oak Tree may be asked by the CHRB to pull up stakes and go to Hollywood Park, considered a safer synthetic surface.

That would not be the first choice of Sherwood Chillingworth, executive vice president of Oak Tree, who cited more than $1 million in advance ticket sales and several sponsorship deals, all based on racing at Santa Anita, not Hollywood Park.

Stronach danced around that issue. When asked about Oak Tree’s upcoming presence, he tossed it back to Chillingworth’s lap.

“We made a commitment which we will keep,” he said. “It’s up to them to run if they want. If they don’t, we won’t hold a grudge.”

In fairness, Stronach’s announcement that there was still time to install the new dirt track, even with Oak Tree running until Oct. 31, may have taken some of the pressure off Oak Tree. Some speculate that the timing of the horsemen’s recent campaign about Santa Anita track safety was partly to leverage Stronach into an earlier start on the dirt track installation.

Late in the meeting, prominent owner Mace Siegel made an impassioned plea to Stronach to allow Oak Tree to continue to race long-term at Santa Anita, based on tradition. Stronach deflected that and is unlikely to do it, since he wants those prime autumn race dates for himself, not a tenant.

There was no indication whether Del Mar, fairly committed to synthetics but with ongoing breakdown problems, would follow suit with dirt. Hollywood Park, likely to be a real estate development someday, is not likely to spend money for a new surface.

The cost issue is also interesting. Stronach estimated the new dirt will cost in the $5-million to $6-million range. Chillingworth said that, “in a normal year,” revenue produced by Oak Tree for Stronach and Santa Anita would be “about $4 1/2 million.”