Bid to hold Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita is rejected

The California Horse Racing Board on Thursday rejected the Oak Tree Racing Assn.'s application to run its fall meeting at Santa Anita after the leaders of horse owner and trainer groups voiced concerns about the synthetic track surface, apparently clearing the way for Hollywood Park to host the Oak Tree meeting.

Oak Tree is expected to present a new application to run its Sept. 29-Oct. 31 meeting at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, with a ruling by the board expected next week.

Jack Liebau, president of Hollywood Park, said his track was eager to host the Oak Tree meeting, which has been held at Santa Anita since 1969. “We feel our track is safe and is continually being monitored,” he said.

Sherwood Chillingworth, executive vice president for Oak Tree, said at the racing board meeting at Del Mar that his organization was confident that problems with Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride synthetic surface could be resolved in time.

But commissioners denied the application after Arnold Zetcher, chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, and John Sadler, president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, indicated their organizations opposed holding the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita in Arcadia.

Also influencing the vote was a presentation by an expert on synthetic racing surfaces hired by the CHRB to inspect and run tests at Santa Anita. Mick Peterson, a professor of engineering at the University of Maine, reported that he had significant concerns about rocks and with inconsistency in the foundation of the Arcadia track.

“What we see is that the track is deep on the turns and shallow around the finish line,” Peterson said. “There’s also some issues around the chute where there’s some unevenness.”

The Arcadia track has been plagued by drainage and other issues since it was changed to a synthetic surface in 2007, but it registered strong safety statistics at its last winter meeting that ended in April.

The racing board mandated that major tracks in California install synthetic surfaces because of safety concerns, but the synthetic surfaces vary and many horsemen have called for tracks to return to conventional dirt surfaces.

After Peterson’s presentation, Chillingworth met with horsemen, Peterson and Richard Tedesco, Santa Anita’s track maintenance superintendent, in an attempt to gain a consensus whether the monthlong Oak Tree meeting should be held at Santa Anita.

“I know there’s a group of trainers who would not like to race at Santa Anita,” Chillingworth told the CHRB. “We also have a group of trainers who think the track is perfectly safe.”

Tedesco told the board that he believed Santa Anita’s track was safe and he was prepared to take steps to fix any concerns raised by Peterson.

But Zetcher said, “It appears just too chancy for us to say over the next three or four weeks we’re going to be able to try to go in, correct the situation [at Santa Anita] and be able to run. We feel it’s just not worth taking the chance.”

Also, Frank Stronach, chairman of MI Developments, which runs Santa Anita, reaffirmed Thursday his commitment to put in a new dirt racing surface in time for the Dec. 26 winter meeting at Santa Anita.