Come September 30, the Oak Tree Racing Assn. will run its 42nd consecutive meet, and in a perfect world it would have been at Santa Anita, which has been its landlord since time began. But California racing is so far from a perfect world, it's in the ionosphere. As the gunsel Eddie Dane put it in the Coen brothers' "Miller's Crossing," "Up is down, black is white."
Just two years ago, this was a time for handstands and cartwheels. The Oak Tree meet was imminent, which is always a treat after the Fairplex Park fortnight, and this time the bow at the top of the package was the Breeders' Cup, making its first return to California since 2003. Oak Tree also got the Breeders' Cup last year, which seems like a long time ago, and that may have been the last time anybody smiled without forcing it in California racing circles.
If California had played its cards right, the Breeders' Cup could have become a permanent fixture, or at least have been anchored there for the next five years. Organizers were prepared to make that strong of a commitment. Frankly, I didn't think that was the right thing to do, I've always thought the rotation system worked best, but now the next Breeders' Cup in the West might be the same day the cows come home.
Oak Tree at Hollywood Park will be an eye-opening experience. Oak Tree has always fought to keep its identity, not to be an appendage of Santa Anita, and even once asked the Los Angeles Times that its heading on the race charts should read, "At Oak Tree." The editor who responded sounded a little like Gertrude Stein talking about Oakland ("There is no there there.") The courteous answer might have been that Oak Tree is a state of mind rather than a locale.
I'm sure the Daily Racing Form has already got this figured out, but after Oak Tree forged a successful campaign to personalize the "SA" abbreviation to "OSA" in the past performances several years ago, there will now need to be another change. "OHol" is the likely way they'll go, although that looks like either a typographical error or the name of an appetizer on a dim sum menu.
Trevor Denman will not call the Oak Tree races; Vic Stauffer, Hollywood Park's regular announcer, will be on the horns. Those hair-raising 6 1/2-furlong grass races down the hill at Santa Anita (Bill Shoemaker called them the most perilous races he ever rode in) will be replaced by six-furlong events, because Hollywood Park has no hills.
The Oak Tree Media Guide arrived, with the cover page and the inside cover page updated to reflect the move to Hollywood Park, but there was no time to change anything else. So inside there is a picture of Denman, but not Stauffer, and on page 4 there is a quote from Sherwood Chillingworth, executive vice president of Oak Tree, extolling the virtues of the artificial surface at Santa Anita for the last two Breeders' Cups. Ironically, it was the trainers and the horse owners' trepidations over the synthetic-to-dirt conversion at Santa Anita that forced Oak Tree's 11th-hour move to Hollywood Park. Hollywood and Oak Tree say they have an owner-tenant deal for 2011 as well. But this is the New Age of California racing, so hold all bets. Everywhere you look, tradition has taken the hindmost.