Future of Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in doubt

Reporting from Baltimore -- The company that operates Santa Anita racetrack has voided a contract that runs through 2016 with nonprofit Oak Tree Racing Assn. That disrupts, at least temporarily, negotiations to make Oak Tree and Santa Anita a permanent or semipermanent home for the Breeders’ Cup series.

Sherwood Chillingworth, executive vice president of Oak Tree, confirmed Friday night that his group’s contract to run racing in its usual fall time slot at Santa Anita, which it had since 1969, was affirmed two weeks ago, then voided two days ago.

Greg Avioli, chief executive of the Breeders’ Cup, which has been meeting and discussing the likelihood of an increased role for Santa Anita, said, “We do not view this as a positive development. Oak Tree has been a valued partner and host.”

The Breeders’ Cup, a multimillion-dollar weekend of racing that has added, for the last 26 years, an additional high-powered event to racing’s calendar, was held at Santa Anita the last two years. Avioli called it “a huge success.”

Santa Anita previously was owned by Frank Stronach’s Magna Entertainment Corp. but has been split into several groups during bankruptcy proceedings. Santa Anita — as well as the Preakness host, Pimlico — is owned by MI Developments. That company is still under Stronach’s umbrella, but its chief executive is Dennis Mills, who said Friday night that the bankruptcy overrides contracts such as Oak Tree’s. Mills also said that while his company and Oak Tree still might sign a deal, the object of MID’s future moves is to “wipe the slate clean.”

“There is more than Oak Tree at stake here,” Mills said. “There is as $200-million investment at Santa Anita. The business model in California horse racing is clearly broken, and laws governing racing in California are 50 years old. I ask you, or any legislator in the state, to tell me what other business — transportation, healthcare — is operating under 50-year-old laws. The answer is none.”

Mills indicated that the Chapter 11 reorganization of Stronach’s company was an opportunity to start over, rather than “defend the status quo, which is defending the decline of the business.” As one example of that decline, he cited the 2006 California Horse Racing Board mandate that its thoroughbred tracks install synthetic racing surfaces.

“At Santa Anita, that’s $25 million later,” he said. “And now, nobody wants the stuff.”

Chillingworth, asked if he had had discussions with Hollywood Park about that track becoming a possible landing place for Oak Tree, refused to confirm or deny such talks. Asked if Oak Tree would consider legal action against MID, based on the argument that the bankruptcy merely shuffled the deck chairs with MID remaining a Stronach-run organization, said, “We are hopeful that we can get this situation settled soon.”

He said he expected much discussion of this issue at a CHRB meeting at Golden Gate Fields on Thursday.