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Santa Anita track to go to dirt

DEL MAR, Calif. -- The synthetic track era at Santa Anita will end this fall.

Frank Stronach, the chairman of Santa Anita's parent company, Magna International Developments, told a group of about 250 horsemen on Wednesday evening that Santa Anita will replace its existing Pro-Ride synthetic surface with a conventional dirt track after the conclusion of the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting Oct. 31.

Stronach said the dirt track would be in place "by the first week of December," well in advance of the opening of the winter-spring meeting at Santa Anita on Dec. 26.

"We are committed to building a new dirt track," Stronach said, receiving a round of applause. "We will do it now. We will gather the engineering and look for the materials. After Oak Tree is finished, we will have the track in place by the first week of December. The horses can train over it and we can run over it on Dec. 26."

Stronach did not say what type of dirt would be installed or from where the material will be acquired. Dennis Mills, Magna International chief executive officer, said Wednesday evening that bids for materials are being collected and that a decision could be made in the next week.

Stronach spoke for 18 minutes, also discussing in broad terms ways to better promote racing. During a 12-minute question and answer period, he said the installation of a dirt track will cost $5 million to $6 million.

Stronach's announcement came on the eve of a California Horse Racing Board meeting in which noted racetrack expert Dr. Mick Peterson is scheduled to issue a preliminary report about the condition of the Santa Anita Pro-Ride track. In recent weeks, there has been concern among horsemen about the surface, with the focus on whether rocks have risen from the sub-surface into the upper layer of the surface. Peterson said in an interview last week that he felt the issue could be fixed before the start of the Oak Tree meeting Sept. 29.

The move to install a dirt track brings to an end a three-year period in which Santa Anita's races were run on two synthetic surfaces and encountered trouble with drainage. Acting on a mandate by the racing board, the track installed a Cushion Track brand surface in the summer of 2007 but the material was plagued by drainage problems, leading to the cancellation of 11 racing days.

A Pro-Ride brand surface was installed in the summer of 2008, but it too had drainage problems earlier this year, forcing the cancellation of five racing days.