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The Only Sure Bet Is Controversy

Horse racing: Stronach/NTRA feud may cost Oak Tree a Breeders' Cup. Meanwhile, CHRB is without a quorum.


Even for racing, a topsy-turvy game at best, this is high turmoil.

The Breeders' Cup would like to award its races to the Oak Tree Racing Assn. for 2002, but may cancel the invitation because of a feud with Frank Stronach, who owns Santa Anita.

And the California Horse Racing Board, which hasn't held a meeting with all seven members present in almost two years, has postponed today's meeting for lack of a quorum. The board is down to three members, with no indication from Gov. Gray Davis' office when he will fill the four vacancies.

Caught in the middle in the Breeders' Cup situation is the nonprofit Oak Tree group, which held the Breeders' Cup in 1986 and 1993 as a tenant at Santa Anita. Oak Tree was in line to host the Breeders' Cup this year, but the races, scheduled for Nov. 4, were moved to Churchill Downs after Stronach's wide-scale remodeling at Santa Anita got in the way.

The Breeders' Cup and the cash-poor National Thoroughbred Racing Assn., racing's relatively new marketing company, recently struck a partnership. With membership fees for next year due on Nov. 10, Stronach's seven tracks may withdraw from the NTRA, part of a festering schism that could include a dozen more tracks.

"We're leaning toward running the 2002 races at Oak Tree," said D.G. Van Clief, president of the Breeders' Cup. "But if Santa Anita drops out of the NTRA, our current policy is not to race at a track that isn't a member."

The Thoroughbred Racing Assns., a trade group that represented most of the major tracks, insisted that Hollywood Park remain a member of its organization before the Breeders' Cup was awarded to the Inglewood track in 1997. The first four years of the Breeders' Cup--1984 through '87--two of the race days were held at Hollywood Park and one was at Santa Anita. Counting next year, when the Breeders' Cup goes to Belmont Park, the races will have been held in California only once in an eight-year stretch.

Sherwood Chillingworth, executive vice president at Oak Tree, is frustrated.

"I understand the Breeders' Cup's position and the logic that it is applying," Chillingworth said. "But that leaves Oak Tree in a difficult position. We're being eliminated because of something we have no control over. This is a skirmish between the NTRA and our lessor. It's a hard thing for us to swallow, because we've been a loyal supporter of the NTRA from the day they started."

In fact, when the NTRA was looking for seed money in 1998, Oak Tree contributed $1 million.

Oak Tree has been running an abbreviated fall race meet at Santa Anita since 1969. In 1998, Oak Tree renegotiated a lease with Santa Anita that will run for 10 more years, through 2010. In December of 1998, Stronach's company, Magna Entertainment, bought Santa Anita for $126 million.

"So far we've gotten along well with the new management," Chillingworth said. "We're not looking to move our racing dates."

What has occurred to Chillingworth is the possibility of running a Breeders' Cup day under Oak Tree auspices at Hollywood Park.

"I don't know whether that could work," he said. "You just couldn't run one day over there, you'd have to run about a week. And we'd be running our meet at Santa Anita at the same time. It wouldn't work for the horsemen. They wouldn't like the idea of running the Breeders' Cup prep races at Santa Anita, and then switching their horses over to Hollywood Park for the Breeders' Cup itself."

Stronach's problems with the NTRA have been long-running. A year ago, on the day the Breeders' Cup was run at his Gulfstream Park, he spelled out his dissatisfaction with the industry group and suggested that he might drop out. But the NTRA made some concessions--including two spots for Stronach representatives on the board--and his tracks remained in the fold.

Recently, the Breeders' Cup signed an agreement with Television Games, an all-racing network, that gives TVG exclusive rights to interactive betting on the Breeders' Cup races. TVG is closely aligned with the NTRA, and Stronach has designs on creating a betting television network of his own. He is also actively seeking to buy a few more tracks.

The Breeders' Cup-TVG deal might also force the NTRA resignations of the 10 so-called mid-Atlantic tracks that are located in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Some of these tracks already operate telephone betting systems of their own. TVG's launch in California has been hamstrung by Gov. Davis' veto of a telephone-betting bill, and this week the network dismissed several employees, among them including Julie Krone, the Hall of Fame jockey who had been working as a commentator.

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