Return to dirt possible at Santa Anita

ARCADIA, Calif. -- Santa Anita has not ruled out replacing its existing synthetic track with a dirt surface, track president Ron Charles said over the weekend.

Charles told the California Horse Racing Board last week that Santa Anita will remove its existing synthetic track later this year, but did not say at the time whether another synthetic track or a dirt surface would be installed. On Sunday, he said the track has not finalized its choice.

When asked whether Santa Anita is considering replacing its surface with a dirt track, Charles said: "The options are open. We're looking at everything. We don't want to be rushed into making a decision."

Santa Anita lost 11 days of racing in January and early February after the Cushion Track synthetic surface installed last summer failed to sufficiently drain following a series of rainstorms. The surface underwent a five-day renovation in early February, adding polymers and fibers from the Australian synthetic surface Pro-Ride. Santa Anita has had no cancellations since the renovation. Early Sunday, the surface successfully withstood approximately a half-inch of rain. The track went ahead with a nine-race program.

A potential return to dirt racing at Santa Anita has the preliminary support of Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board and a major proponent of synthetic tracks.

In February 2006, the racing board approved a mandate requiring California tracks that offer a minimum of four continuous weeks of Thoroughbred racing to switch from dirt surfaces to synthetic tracks by the end of 2007 or lose racing dates.

Shapiro backed away from that mandate over the weekend, but remained hopeful that Santa Anita would install a different synthetic surface later this year.

"If, at the end of the day, Santa Anita comes forward and said, 'We've looked at the options and we believe for the safety of the horse and rider that we've got a plan to put in a dirt track on top of a good solid base,' and they would put in a track that was safe, personally, I'm not totally opposed to that," he said.

"I think we have to have an open mind. I think what you've seen, the synthetic tracks are successful, but clearly there are bumps in the road. I'm not favoring one or the other. I'm hoping that synthetic tracks are the answers. If there is a better option, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't listen to everything."

Four California racetracks have installed synthetic tracks in the last two years. Hollywood Park began using a Cushion Track surface in November 2006. Del Mar used a Polytrack surface for the first time last year. Golden Gate Fields installed a Tapeta Footings surface for its fall meeting last November.

Bay Meadows continues to race on a dirt surface. It received a waiver from the board because the track plans to close later this year.

Synthetic tracks are believed to be kinder on horses. They have led to larger fields, according to testimony presented by racing officials to the board at a meeting at Santa Anita on Feb. 20.

Shapiro said the installation of a dirt track at Santa Anita would not be approved without input from members of the industry, including trainers and jockeys.

Ed Halpern, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, said he would be opposed to a move back to a dirt track. As evidence that synthetic tracks have been a boost for racing, he cited the jockeys and trainers who spoke in support of synthetic surfaces at the Feb. 20 hearing, and the fact that workers' compensation claims for exercise riders are down.

"They hold great promise and it would be a shame to turn back now," Halpern said. "That's my basic instinct."

Halpern acknowledged that Santa Anita's recent troubles with drainage, as well as maintenance issues at other tracks, have frustrated track executives.

"I can see that they're tired of making changes," he said. "They've learned they've got to be willing to spend money to maintain this track.

"If maintained properly, they meet the goals that were behind the original intent. From a training perspective, they offer great advantage."

Santa Anita made up two of its canceled racing days on the Wednesdays of Feb. 13 and 20 and has a third makeup day scheduled for Wednesday. Charles said Sunday that the track would not ask for any additional makeup dates until field sizes improve. Wednesday's eight-race program drew only 63 entrants for eight races.

"After looking at the entries, we'll take a step back and probably not be applying [for more dates] until we understand our inventory a little better," he said. "We've got to have quality cards before we'll start asking again."

The current meeting ends April 20.