by Winston Chua
ARCADIA – Oak Tree Racing is now underway at Hollywood Park, a fact that is still unsettling to many Arcadians, including its leaders. Arcadia Development Services Director Jason Kruckeberg last week hand delivered a letter and spoke before the California Horse Racing Board on behalf of the council to express statements of disapproval, like the those shared by Arcadia Councilman Bob Harbicht.
“I’m no expert on racetracks, but we had one of the safest meets in years last year and had two successful Breeders Cup meets,” said Harbicht. He said that if the board really wanted to see Oak Tree Racing at Santa Anita, there would have been more than enough time to have the track prepared. In other words, if there was no problem in previous years, why should we believe there to be any serious ones now?
Although Kruckeberg did address these concerns to the board, he acknowledged that the thrust of his letter centered on getting more race dates for Santa Anita. He and the council feel that just racing from December to April is not good for the community, region or sport.
“We want to show that there is a commitment to horseracing here,” said the director.
Harbicht agrees with MID Developer Frank Stronach’s assertion that Santa Anita need not be closed for three-quarters of a year. It is, after all, a $203 million piece of land that is hardly used. He said that the board currently uses “archaic rules of horse racing dates.” In other words, the system as it now stands is highly inefficient.
Arcadia’s leaders have been at odds with the CHRB since it forbid Oak Tree from racing at Santa Anita, when the board argued that track problems were not a problem in the past.
Still, more than a few people believed that track problems began after last November’s Breeders’ Cup, when the track failed to drain effectively after the rainy season. Although the engineered surface of the track was designed to drain easily, it failed.
To remedy the situation, a Verti-Drain was used. This machine stabs holes with long metal rods deep and quick into the ground, all throughout the track. The results were mixed. While the track had a greater potential for drying in a more reasonable amount of time, the Verti-Drain, according to a source, caused damage to the basic integrity of the track.
Arcadia’s leaders don’t completely buy those explanations as the reasons for why the meet left their city. Was the board taking into consideration just how much Oak Tree’s presence affected the city and surrounding areas? After all, saying goodbye to Oak Tree in 2010 meant saying goodbye to a 41-year-old tradition that has become part of the city’s rich history. It also meant losing $185,000 the city might have received for this year’s races, not counting the generous donations Oak Tree makes to local charities and organizations.
But the Verti-Drain, with its large spikes, does have the potential to allow rocks and debris to come back to the surface of the racetrack and give the track a compromising inconsistency that might harm valuable, prize-winning horses. In August, the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers said they opposed having the meet at Santa Anita, in part because of the statements of one Dr. Michael Peterson.
In a nutshell, Peterson, an expert on racing surfaces, said he feared for horse and owner safety. Not everyone agreed.
Kruckeberg and Harbicht feel that there may have been bad feelings between Frank Stronach, chairman of MI Developments, and the CHRB, eventually leading to the split.
CHRB spokesman Mike Marten, however, said that it was not the racing board but the inability of Oak Tree to obtain a horsemen’s agreement that stopped the race from happening in Arcadia. He said the horsemen who would have been involved in Santa Anita also cited poor track conditions as the reason for their departure.
Stronach said that he will have a dirt racing surface in place, in time for the December winter meeting at Santa Anita.
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