Official: Oak Tree will probably move act to Hollypark

There’s less than a 5 percent chance the Oak Tree Racing Association will hold its annual fall meet at Santa Anita in 2010, according to an industry official close to the situation who requested anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak about the subject.

According to the official, Santa Anita’s parent company, Magna International Developments, is playing hardball and will not budge on its demands, either to Oak Tree officials or members of the California Horse Racing Board, who called out Magna officials at their monthly meeting last week.

MID, which took over ownership of Santa Anita in a reorganization of Frank Stronach’s companies during Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, voided its lease with Oak Tree, which was scheduled to run out in 2016, two weeks ago and said it would re-enter into negotiations with the non-profit group on a new lease.

If Oak Tree officials can’t come to an agreement with Magna on that new lease, the industry source said Hollywood Park will likely be the site for the 2010 meet that is scheduled to begin Sept. 29 and run through Oct. 31. Del Mar also has offered its facility to Oak Tree.

“They’re not going to back down, even after the CHRB meeting last week,” the industry official said of Magna. “They’re going to try to get what they want and if they don’t, they’ll close down Santa Anita.”

It’s hard to imagine even Stronach making such a bad decision, especially when, according to the official, Santa Anita made a $15 million profit last year. Stronach is on his soap box about the racing model in California being broken, which nobody disputes, but some of his ideas are off-the-charts bad.

Dennis Mills, MID’s chief executive officer, said last week a decision on the new racing surface at Santa Anita will be announced no later than mid-July. This, after former Santa Anita president Ron Charles said in January that the decision on a new track would come shortly. Shortly has turned into possibly six months later.

Yes, the model is broken, but Stronach is a big reason why it is broken and his continued bad decisions are making matters worse. If Oak Tree is forced to move its act to Hollywood Park this fall, the on-track crowds will be nowhere near what they’ve been in the past and the ill will that is prevalent throughout the sport in California will grow only stronger.

Plus, Breeders’ Cup officials said recently they will announce within 30 days where the 2011 Cup will be held. There was talk in the past few months that Oak Tree/Santa Anita, which has hosted the event five times and became the first track to host it in back-to-back years in 2008-09, could possibily become the permanent host of the Breeders’ Cup. But that hardly seems likely now with Oak Tree’s future so cloudy. Breeders’ Cup president Greg Avioli told the Louisville Courier-Journal this week that the Oak Tree situation is a “concern.”

Stronach is scheduled to fly to Southern California in June to hold a pow wow with SoCal racing executives. According to our source, they probably won’t like what they hear from a man who is doing his best to alienate himself from an industry that has been so good to him.

If Stronach is so dissatisfied that he would let Santa Anita fall by the wayside if he doesn’t get his demands, he should sell the track immediately to someone who holds the Great Race Place in a higher regard and will do what’s right for the sport and not what’s best only for Magna. He’s not alone in a me-first environment that is so prevalent in the sport today, but it’s something that needs to stop if the California racing industry wants to right what is now a sinking ship.

All eyes on Monmouth Park for next three months

Tired of seeing less-than-stellar horses running in five- and six-horse fields? Apparently many fans are because weekday crowds at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, especially, have been shrinking in recent years.

It’s no question this industry is in trouble, both in California and nationally. The horse population continues to decrease and purse sizes at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park have shrunk to the point where many horsemen either have gone elsewhere or are considering a move.

Enter Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., which hosts the $1 million Haskell Invitational each summer and was the site of the 2007 Breeders’ Cup. The 65-year-old race track is stepping out of the box and trying something new for its current 50-day meet — a three-day race week (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) that will offer close to $1 million per day in purses.

The goal? To attract more fans, bigger fields, a larger handle and the top horses in the country. You can bet your last two bucks every race track president in America will be watching to see how this experiment turns out.

Monmouth hit a home run on opening day Saturday, drawing 17,903 on-track fans compared to 10,292 in 2009. The handle went through the roof as $9,357,444 was bet compared to $4,279,438 last year. It was the highest handle at Monmouth other than a Haskell Day or on Breeders’ Cup weekend three years ago.

I’ve long believed that there is too much racing in Southern California. Give the fans less of something and they get hungry. Keep giving them five-day race weeks and the product becomes stale and sometimes boring, particularly when you’re seeing small fields and a constant parade of even-money winners.

“I think the concept behind this – 50 days, 50 million – is pretty clear,” John Forbes, the longtime trainer and current president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (NJTHA), told the Daily Racing Form. “It’s responding to what the customer is looking for: quality horses and decent-sized fields. We can’t keep asking the customer to come out for seven-horse fields.”

Monmouth also did the fans a favor by introducing a 50-cent pick five with only a 15 percent takeout. The tracks in Southern California need to step up and try similar new wagering, which Del Mar plans to do soon. Congrats to Del Mar for its plans to offer a 50-cent late pick four this summer.

Forbes is right. Look at Santa Anita, which still attracts large crowds on big days when there are full fields and top-notch horses. There are still a mess of people out there who love horse racing, but the sport is losing some because the sport’s quality is decreasing.

Charles leaving post at Santa Anita

MI Developments, the new parent company of Santa Anita, will announce Tuesday that president Ron Charles is leaving as track president, according to a source.

Charles has been president of Santa Anita since 2004 and oversaw the track’s installation of two different synthetic surfaces during his tenure, including the initial Cushion Track in time for the 2007 Oak Tree meet.

One of the main reasons Charles is leaving is because of MI Developments’ decision to terminate its agreement with the Oak Tree Racing Association last week, according to the source who requested anonymity because he’s not authorized to talk about the subject.

It’s not known if Charles, thought by some to be a leading proponent of synthetic surfaces, is leaving on his own or is being forced out. Santa Anita is currently in the process of deciding whether to return to a dirt track or stick with a synthetic.

MI Developments is still under the umbrella of Frank Stronach, who is a known anti-synthetic man but says he went along with the California Horse Racing Board’s mandate for artificial surfaces for the good of the sport in California.

Charles’ departure comes at a time when horse racing is struggling big time, particularly in California where some horsemen are fleeing the scene because of shrinking purse sizes and a shortage of horses.

There was no immediate word on who will succeed Charles, who took on added responsibilities with former owner Magna Entertainment Corp., which filed for Chapter 11 in March 2009, in 2008.

Baffert, Pletcher make the right calls

There’s a reason why trainers like Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher have continued success — they know when to push forward and when to pull back.

On Sunday, Baffert announced his Preakness Stakes winner, Lookin At Lucky, will skip the Belmont Stakes on June 5. He’s raced five times so far in 2010, including two hard races in the past two weeks, and will now be given a well-deserved respite.

“I want to keep this horse around,” Baffert told The Associated Press.

Ditto Pletcher, who said Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver will also get a break and be pointed to the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs.

“We would have loved to have come here and win the Preakness and go to the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown,” Pletcher told The Associated Press. “That would be the ultimate challenge.”

Instead, horse racing has now gone 32 years between Triple Crown winners since three horses — Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) — broke through in the ’70s and made the Crown look almost too easy. It’s the longest drought ever between Triple Crown champions.

Baffert and Pletcher are both absolutely making the right calls. These are two talented colts who, handled with proper care, could make major noise this summer and fall. They’re that good, especially Lookin At Lucky, who’s lost three times in 10 races but had legitimate excuses in all three defeats.

Lookin At Lucky could return in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Aug. 1. Pletcher said Super Saver will be sent back to his barn at Belmont Park for a breather.

So now the focus returns to the two ladies of the sport — Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra — and Quality Road, who is expected to return to the track in the Met Mile at Belmont Park on May 31.

As trainer D. Wayne Lukas told The Associated Press on Sunday morning: “Thank God for Zenyatta and Rachel. They’re keeping the interest pretty good.”

Pletcher may run trio in the Preakness

A group of turf writers met with Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher on Saturday in the paddock at Churchill Downs to quiz him about Super Saver, who’ll go for the second leg of the Triple Crown next Saturday in the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

The following is a transcript of the get-together, courtesy of the Churchill Downs publicity office:

Q: How does that long-awaited Kentucky Derby win feel a week later?

“It’s still sinking in. It’s been a great week but we’ve still got the Preakness to keep in mind. It’s still sinking in but it feels good.”

Q: How is Super Saver doing as he prepares for the Preakness?

“[Super Saver] has come out of the Derby really good. So far, he’s exceeded expectations in terms of the way he’s come out of it. His energy level has been great, his appetite has been really good, he’s been really enthusiastic and we really like the way he’s been training. So we’re real pleased. We’re going to give him a breeze on Monday; we’re not looking for much. . .he’ll ship to Pimlico on Wednesday. Calvin [Borel] will be up for the breeze and most likely he’ll go right after the [renovation] break at 8:30 a.m. Calvin is a very talented right and he’s worked a lot of horses and he’s very good at it. He worked him perfectly before the Derby. It’ll give him a little feel as to how the horse is doing. Any time you can get to know him a little better it might pay dividends in the race.”

Q: You’ll also be running Aikenite in the Preakness …

“Aikenite will breeze five-eighths [Sunday] and we’ll see how that goes. We like the way he’s been training since the Derby Trial. His Blue Grass was disappointing and we felt like we needed to get back on track. We think we did in the Derby Trial, which was a good performance. So maybe a fresh horse coming into the Preakness is a good thing.”

Q: Is there any chance that you might run Mission Impazible in the Preakness?

“We haven’t decided [on Mission Impazible]. We’re kind of seeing how he trains and he’s come out of it well, too. We’ll talk to the connections [Sunday] and we’ll see. There’s a possibility, I would say.”

Q: What are your thoughts on the retirement of Eskendereya. Just a couple of weeks ago he was the heavy favorite to win the Derby …

“[The decision to retire Eskendereya] was a tough one. Obviously after the Wood Memorial we had really, really high hopes for him. It shows you the ups and downs of the game. But we’re hoping his next career is a good one.”

Q: How has life been in the week since you won your first Kentucky Derby?

“I’ve had a couple of cool moments. We had a guy e-mail us from Afghanistan that had an American flag from his mission and he’s a huge Derby fan and was from Louisville. He e-mailed us and he’s sending us that flag which was flown on his mission on May 1. Also, University of Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson sent me a text to congratulate me . . . a lot of cool stuff like that. I’ve heard from a lot of people that I wouldn’t ordinarily hear from. When I flew back into Louisville from New York to Louisville, most of the Louisville people knew [who I was] and I signed some autographs on the plane. That’s the question that’s always asked: Have you won the Kentucky Derby? Now I look forward to answering it.

Q: What is Super Saver’s personality around the barn?

“Obviously he’s a very competitive colt, but around the barn he’s real easy to get along with. He’s always been very professional. He’s not an overly aggressive colt at the barn – he’s not difficult to walk or groom, or any of those things. So he’s the consummate professional really.”

Q: How about from a physical standpoint from 2 to 3 – how much did he develop?

“He’s made that nice progression you want to see. He’s not an overly big colt, but he’s very well balanced and a great mover with good mechanics. He’s made a good progression from 2 to 3″

Q: Is this horse good enough to win a Triple Crown? I know you’re biased …

“I think he’s got a big chance to win at Pimlico, so we’re going to tackle that assignment and then we’ve got three weeks ’til the next one. I think coming into the Derby it appeared to be a very wide open group and I think it’s still a little bit wide open. But I wouldn’t trade places with anyone, especially going to Pimlico and backing up a little bit of distance. I think he’s got a tactical edge because he’s not relying on the trip like many of the rest of them. If it’s a slow pace he’ll be there. If it’s a fast pace he can settle like he did the other day. Something that was overlooked in the Derby is that everyone made it out to be that this horse didn’t get a great trip and that horse didn’t get a good trip. Super Saver was able to get a great trip because he was able to put himself in all the right spots and every time Calvin needed him to do something, he did it.”

Q: Calvin said this morning he was limiting his interviews and special appearances because he feels he needs to be focused and shut out distractions – he wants to be totally focused on the Triple Crown. Does that give you even more confidence?

“I have total confidence in Calvin Borel. I think we all try to learn from things we’d do a little bit differently if we had a chance to do things again. So he’s making a few adjustments, which is a smart move.”

Q: Were you a believer that this colt could lay eight or 10 lengths off the lead after all the speed he’d shown in the early part of his career?

“I thought the Arkansas Derby was a big step in the right direction. I think Calvin learned a little something about him that day and we learned a little something about him that day. The one thing I always said was that if he had a legitimate pace to run at, he’d settle. We got a legitimate pace in the Arkansas Derby. I was a little surprised that he was able to tuck him almost all the way back to sixth around the first turn, so that turned out to be a big edge.”

Q: In your mind, how much of a different race is the Preakness?

“It’s a little bit different. Obviously we won’t have 20 horses, but I think it gets lost in the shuffle a little bit that it’s still a mile and three sixteenths. Everyone acts like it’s backing way up. We’re still running further than any of them had ever run before the Derby, so it’s still a mile and three sixteenths and you need the right kind of horse to do that.”

Q: How about post position in the Preakness? In your experience, how big a factor can that be?

“It can be a factor. I think that in Super Saver’s position, we don’t have to worry about it too much. He’s tactical enough. Without knowing the whole field yet, it doesn’t appear as though there’s quiet as much early speed in the race. With Conveyance not going and Line of David not going, you take a couple of the major pacesetters out of that. So I can see us laying a little closer at Pimlico.”

Rail Trip returns to action this weekend

Rail Trip, who along with Misremembered is one of the top male handicap horses on the West Coast, returns to the races for the first time since last summer’s third-place finish in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar when he faces six rivals Saturday in the $150,000 Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood Park — one of the main preps for the Hollywood Gold Cup on July 10.

Rail Trip has won six of nine lifetime with two seconds and a third, winning last year’s Gold Cup in only his eighth career start. He then raced in the Pacific Classic before trainer Ron Ellis decided to shut him down for the year because of some very minor foot issues.

“He’d just had enough for the year,” Ellis said. “His feet started to get sore and I was just battling too much with him. After the Gold Cup, that was kind of finishing off a lot of races for him and then down at Del Mar he didn’t really handle Del Mar well and he didn’t do well down there and he started getting foot trouble. It was just one of those things that I just thought we were pushing him too far and I didn’t want to get an injury. If he wasn’t going to be 100 percent, there wasn’t any sense in running.”

There had been talk of running Rail Trip in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but that talk ended shortly after the Pacific Classic.

“For me, it wasn’t a huge disappointment,” Ellis said. “He came so far so fast. I mean, he was a maiden in November (2008) and then won the Gold Cup in July. I was kind of looking at it where I was really pretty thankful for where he was at than what we didn’t get. This is our year to point for the Breeders’ Cup. I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t make it there this year.”

Ellis said that looking back, he doesn’t think Rail Trip was quite right for the Pacific Classic, when the Jump Start gelding finished behind long-shot winner Richard’s Kid and Einstein.

“But I thought he ran a phenomenal race,” Ellis said. “He got into some trouble down the backside, it was the first time he’d ever been behind horses and he really gutted it out. But for me, it wasn’t his ‘A’ race. He’s coming back really, really well.”

Plans call for Rail Trip to run in the Mervyn LeRoy, the Californian (June 12) and the Gold Cup en route to the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6. Ellis said he’d like to race the 5-year-old gelding five times before the Breeders’ Cup.

“For now, we’re going to stay here at Hollywood, try to hit the Gold Cup, and then after that our plans are kind of up in the air,” he said. “I’m not looking to run him a whole lot of times this year. We’re not looking for a real heavy campaign. I thought the horses that won (at) the Breeders’ Cup last year and most years are horses that are lightly raced and doing well at the end of the year instead of the ones that have campaigned all year long. We’re kind of looking to be that fresh horse. But he’s got to get enough under him to be ready to run that huge race.

“Hollywood Park is kind of where he’s been based most of the time and he does really well at this track. We’re going to keep him here during Del Mar, but I wouldn’t say he’s not going to run in the Pacific Classic. That’s a definite possibility.”

Ellis was asked how he thinks Rail Trip, who’s run all nine of his races on synthetic tracks, will fare on dirt.

“I think he’ll like it,” he said. “The one thing about this Hollywood track, it’s not a real heavy synthetic. I’ve always said if you’ve got Del Mar over here, Santa Anita’s over here and then dirt’s over here, I think Hollywood is somewhere in the middle. I don’t think you’ll see horses that run well here at Hollywood Park have that much trouble with a sandy race track.

“I think the horses that run well (at Hollywood Park) will like the dirt at Churchill because it’s a sand-based track and not what you’d call a dirt-dirt track. It’s more of a sandy surface.”

Ellis said he’s not adverse to running Rail Trip in the Breeders’ Cup without a prep race on dirt.

“I’ve talked to (owners Mace and Samantha Siegel) about it, and I just told them that I always preferred not to ship because you can kind of keep a horse a little bit fresher,” he said. “Then, if it came down to it I’d just train him at Churchill for a month leading up to (the Breeders’ Cup). I did that when I ran in the Derby, I just took my horses straight there and let them acclimate to the track and I think it takes about a month to make it a home court-type of deal.

“Our plan would be, if things are going well, we’ll take him there a month before the race and train him over that race track and he’ll get used to it that way.”

Ellis has never won a Breeders’ Cup race, but if Rail Trip returns and runs like he did at 4, he’s a definite threat.

Are the Kentucky Derby fields too crowded?

It’s now becoming the norm, rather than the exception, when 20 horses crowd into the starting gate at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday each May.

Is the best horse winning the Derby each year, or is it now a case of the luckiest 3-year-old winning America’s most famous horse race?

Go back and examine the past four Triple Crown winners and see how many horses they had to beat in the Derby:

1978, Affirmed — 10
1977, Seattle Slew — 14
1973, Secretariat — 12
1948, Citation — 5

Two of the best 3-year-olds of the past 25 years who didn’t win Triple Crowns, Point Given in 2001 and Risen Star in 1988, both had to square off against 16 challengers in their Derbies. Of course, Point Given’s main obstacle might have had to do with how he handled the track that day and not the fact he was bumped right out of the gate.

I agree with European-based trainer Jeremy Noseda that the best horse doesn’t always win the Kentucky Derby, but is that a bad thing? I’m not saying Super Saver is not the best 3-year-old this year. He may very well go on to win the Triple Crown and prove his greatness, but there’s also no doubt that he got one of the smoothest, trouble-free Derby trips on Saturday thanks to Calvin Borel.

While we’re on the subject, has there ever been a jockey who rode a race track like Borel navigates the oval at Churchill? I mean, it’s amazing. You go back and look at his ride aboard Mine That Bird in 2009 and this year with Super Saver and they are almost identical.

You’d think someone would try to take the rail away from him in a race that is as America as baseball and apple pie, but I haven’t seen it yet. He breaks, heads straight to that rail and saves as much ground as he can before unleashing his winning kick.

Of course, it helps that he’s had live horses three of the past four years, but still, you have to hand it to the man they call Calvin “Bo-rail.” He’s gone in with a game plan and executed it to perfection.

I’m of the opinion we should keep the Derby as it is, though I also believe the graded earnings that are used to determine the starters if there are more than 20 horses needs to be tweaked. Perhaps more emphasis should be given to Grade 1 earnings.

Tell us what you think: