ARCADIA, Calif. -- The autumn Oak Tree race meet begins Wednesday at Santa Anita just like many major California meets begin these days - smiling track officials with fingers crossed, hoping the latest generation of synthetic surfaces is up to the challenge.
"I am extremely bullish on our meet," Oak Tree executive vice president Sherwood Chillingworth said Monday, despite economic gloom in the racing business and beyond. And yes, Chillingworth understands there are questions about the Pro-Ride main track at Santa Anita that replaced the dysfunctional, non-draining Cushion Track.
"In light of everything, I think we'll have a hell of a good meet; we have a great racing schedule," Chillingworth said.
Oh yes, the racing. Oak Tree starts Wednesday with trepidation, but ends with a Friday-Saturday bang on Oct. 24-25, with the two-day, 14-race, $25 million Breeders' Cup extravaganza. The five-week Oak Tree meet ends Oct. 26.
Much of the action is packed early in the season. An unprecedented six Grade 1 races will be run Saturday, with two more graded stakes Sunday; opening-day Wednesday features the Grade 3 Morvich Handicap, a turf sprint. Eight of the nine graded stakes are Win and You're In races; the winners earn berths in respective BC races, pending entry fees.
The 2008 Breeders' Cup will be the first on a synthetic surface, and Santa Anita track president Ron Charles is hopeful that initial reviews of the surface extend beyond fall, into winter.
"So far, everybody has been very positive; almost every rider I talked to has said it's very consistent, with very little change from days that are overcast to days that are sunny," he said.
Meanwhile, many trainers are on the fence, including Bob Baffert.
"What I've seen so far in the morning looks good, but we won't know until we start running on it," he said.
Cool morning temperatures generally contribute to consistency; the true test is racing under afternoon sun. "Some horses will adapt to it, and some won't," Baffert said.
While the Oak Tree stakes program is set, racing director Mike Harlow admits it will be hard to duplicate the 2007 fall overnight program when full fields were normal.
"Last year was unbelievable; we averaged 8.9 starters per race," he said.
By coincidence or not, the 2007 Oak Tree meet followed the first Polytrack meet at Del Mar.
Harlow said that last fall, "trainers coming off Del Mar didn't have as many problems with their babies, things like bucked shins. I'm not sure if we're in the same position as last year. We should have the quality - if we can have the quantity also, we'll be in good shape."
Based on opening day, Oak Tree is off to a flying start. The nine-race card averages 11.4 entrants per race, including 12 in the Grade 3 Morvich Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs on turf. The favorite is the John Sadler-trained Get Funky.
"He's ready to go," Sadler said, and so is the entire stable. Sadler led the Del Mar meet, and said, "We expect the same results. It's the same horses, with a few new players thrown in."
One of those will be the shortest price Wednesday. Lightly raced Vulcan faces first-level allowance runners in race 7, his first start since a highly rated (92 Beyer Speed Figure) maiden win at Del Mar. If he reproduces his Polytrack form on Pro-Ride, Vulcan should win at low odds. Does Polytrack form translate to Pro-Ride? For now, the assumption is yes.
Get Funky, who is 5 for 5 in turf sprints, is the 121-pound topweight in the $100,000 Morvich. Given that the winner of the Morvich earns an automatic berth in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, racing director Harlow said discussions will be held regarding the conditions of the Morvich, specifically whether it should remain a handicap race.
Oak Tree at Santa Anita also plays host to the 2009 Breeders' Cup, and there are sure to be changes next fall to the prep-race stakes program. There does seem to be an excess number of Breeders' Cup races that need preps, but who is counting?
"There are 14 Breeders' Cup races now, and I think we've covered the majority of them even though they may not be the perfect scenario for everybody," racing secretary Rick Hammerle said. Next year, he said, "We'll see what works, what didn't, and adjust."
Though 5 of the 14 Breeders' Cup races do not have a corresponding local prep, there are options. Horses targeting juvenile turf races can use the main-track Grade 1 Oak Leaf (fillies) on Saturday or Grade 1 Norfolk on Sunday; Dirt Mile and Marathon candidates can prep Saturday in the Grade 1 Goodwood; Filly-Mare Sprint possibles could face males Saturday in the Grade 1 Ancient Title. The $65,000 Pine Tree Lane Stakes on Sunday for fillies and mares is restricted.
A year from now, the 2009 Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita will be six weeks long, and the Breeders' Cup will be later, on Nov. 6-7. There will be changes in the stakes schedule.
"It becomes a matter of economics and horse population," Harlow said.
The inventory this fall will be boosted. Todd Pletcher will ship 15 horses next week and will have more than 35 at Santa Anita by the end of the meet. Furthermore, trainer Steve Asmussen has reserved 15 stalls. It remains to be seen if one of them will be the autumn home for BC Classic candidate Curlin, but track officials confirmed that Curlin's owner, Jess Jackson, has visited Santa Anita to personally inspect the synthetic surface.
Assuming that Curlin emerges from the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont in good order, a Curlin-Big Brown showdown is increasingly likely. It would be the highlight of the 2008 racing calendar. Racing officials are crossing their fingers.