Oak Tree opens with bang for 20th Breeders’ Cup

Sep 16, 2003 4:49 AM

The Oak Tree Racing Association hosts the 20th Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita next month, but racing fans shouldn’t have to wait that long to sample the flavor of international competition.

With four Breeders’ Cup preview stakes on opening day, Sept. 28, major East Coast-based trainers such as Todd Pletcher and Christophe Clement could run horses in the Lady’s Secret Breeders’ Cup Handicap, the Yellow Ribbon Stakes, the Oak Leaf Stakes and the Clement L. Hirsch Memorial Turf Handicap, all on opening day.

Oak Tree Director of Racing Mike Harlow expects fans and the track to benefit from the Breeders’ Cup, which unfolds on Oct. 25 of the 32-day meet that ends on Nov. 9.

"I visited Saratoga during its recent meet and a lot of outfits there nominated to our Breeders’ Cup prep races, trainers like Pletcher and Clement," Harlow said. "Hopefully they’ll bring horses here to run in the preps to get a feel of the race track and the turf course prior to the Breeders’ Cup."

One horse that won’t ship from the east is Azeri. The reigning Horse of the Year is training at her San Luis Rey Downs headquarters near Del Mar for the Lady’s Secret, a race she won last year by 3½ lengths under 127 pounds.

"I’ll be happy to have Azeri," Harlow said. "She’s probably the best horse in the country right now in my opinion. Just her running on opening day will make that day’s card. The Yellow Ribbon is always a good race (Bobby Frankel’s powerhouse trio of Grade I winners Tates Creek, Heat Haze and Megahertz are among the candidates). The Oak Leaf will showcase the 2-year-old fillies (headed by Richard Mandella’s impressive Del Mar Debutante winner Halfbridled), and the Clement Hirsch should be a decent race. Typically, in the past, it suffered from a lack of Europeans, but hopefully that will change this year with the Breeders’ Cup here. When the Breeders’ Cup is on the East Coast it’s kind of tough to ship all the way to the West Coast to prep for the Breeders’ Cup and then ship all the way back to the East Coast, but it’s a different scenario this year."

Harlow, who will be working his third Breeders’ Cup, says both the main track and the grass course should play fair.

"That main track has been great so far through the summer, and that can sometimes be a challenge because it’s so hot during that period and hard to keep a lot of water in it. But it helps that we’re not racing on it and only train on it a few hours every morning. We’ll protect the turf course a bit more leading up to the Breeders’ Cup. I don’t think we’ll run any fewer (turf) races, but we’ll probably utilize the rail positions a little more than usual, just to protect the inside two running lanes prior to Breeders’ Cup day. I don’t even know if we’ll use them one time or one weekend at the zero position, but the remainder of the meet we’ll try and protect it pretty much."

Even without an influx of horses from outside the Golden State, Harlow expects overnight races to be attractive.

"The quality of racing should be better than what we’ve seen in a long time because we have the Breeders’ Cup," Harlow said. "The day before the Breeders’ Cup we have a stakes doubleheader and we’re going to try and make that a pretty decent card. Most tracks have a pretty successful week prior to the Breeders’ Cup."

Harlow is a member of the panel that determines the leading horses in each division in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Future Book betting on the Breeders’ Cup.

"Three or four people are on the committee and we submit a list of our top 23 horses in each division," Harlow explained. "Then the horses receive votes. If they’re consensus picks, they’re automatically on the list. If they’re not consensus picks, after everyone submits their list we have a conference call and discuss who should be on the list.

"Usually, we spend a couple hours talking about it. That way, someone from each part of the country has a voice, especially if there are horses that haven’t run in a few months.

"For example, a horse like Hombre Rapido is a pretty decent sprinter, but he hasn’t run in a few months. But I know he’s pointing to the Sprint, whereas people on the East Coast might not know that, so I can have input in getting him on the pool."

The Classic was available in the first two Future Book pools, but not in the final leg.

"I had Mineshaft on top (in the first two), but that was before Candy Ride won the Pacific Classic," Harlow said. "I thought Candy Ride might be the best horse, but the fact that he would have to be supplemented to the race for $800,000, I felt he had to win impressively before owners Sid and Jenny Craig would consider spending all that money. But now that he’s won big, I’m sure that’s where they’re going. At least that’s where I’d be going.

"At the time I did the pool, I had Mineshaft first based on what he had accomplished to that point. But I might have a different opinion now."

HOMESTRETCH: Not only did Del Mar set records for mutuel handle and highest on-track attendance since the advent of inter-track wagering in 1988, with a daily average attendance of 29,494, it also retained its position over Saratoga as national leader in that category. Total handle during the 43-day meet was a record $570,795,239 for a daily average of $13,274,308, an increase of 7.5 percent from last year. Bucking a national trend, on-track attendance was 725,922, a daily average of 16,882, up 8.8. percent. Favorites won 129 of 372 races, 34.6 percent, with 56 odds-on favorites, 31 of them winning for 55 percent. There were 262 claims for $7,044,500.