Santa Anita has lost 13 racing days dating back to the 2007-08 season because its synthetic track — whether it be Cushion Track or Pro-Ride — would not drain. It looks like it’s almost a certainty that Friday’s card will be canceled too, meaning the track will have lost 18 days of racing because of poor track conditions since opening in 1934, including 14 the past three seasons alone.
So it’s no wonder that on Monday, Santa Anita president Ron Charles announced that the track would rip out its Pro-Ride surface at the end of this meet and replace it. He won’t say on the record what the new surface is going to be, but the announcement is expected within a week to 10 days and if you guessed dirt, go to the head of the class. There is more chance of peace in the Middle East than Santa Anita owner Frank Stronach putting in a new synthetic surface.
Former CHRB chairman Richard Shapiro is everybody’s favorite whipping boy these days, and he should be. The decision to mandate synthetic surfaces in California, without a full study as to the effects it would have in the industry as a whole, was one of the worst, if not THE worst move, in the history of California racing. He’s even admitted he blew it. Even though Shapiro is gone now, the CHRB continues to make us shake our heads, too, by increasing the takeout in betting at Los Alamitos at a time when fans are fed up to begin with. But that’s another story entirely. Incoming chairman Keith Brackpool was the lone dissenter in a 6-1 vote, and he should be applauded for opposing the measure.
“It’s sort of sad for California that the most beautiful track in America … the surface is just a disaster,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “It’s too bad it’s gone this far. It should have been taken out a long time ago. They have to take it out now. That track is an abomination there. I just hope they talk with some trainers (for input), and I hope they bring in some engineers and do it right this time.”
It’s funny, but one of the arguments in favor of synthetics before they were put in was that they would attract more top trainers and more of the marquee horses. Wrong. Trainers the likes of D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito have never liked them, and Todd Pletcher, who maintained a sizable stable here a couple of winters ago, now wants virtually nothing to do with them.
Horses? Oh sure, they attracted European turf specialists, and they attracted horses like Go Between, who was an absolute freak on synthetics. But how about Rachel Alexandra skipping the Breeders’ Cup? It was the wrong decision, to be sure, but Jess Jackson still did it, and he would not have been able to get away with it if Santa Anita had been dirt. And don’t forget Indian Blessing, one of the top female sprinters of recent years who was retired at the end of her 4-year-old campaign because she didn’t like artificial tracks.
Indian Blessing’s owner, Hal Earnhardt, even said he would be willing to put up some of the money to help Santa Anita with the dirt trucks when the renovation begins.
“(Earnhardt) loves running in California, and Indian Blessing, if they had dirt, she would have run another year,” Baffert said. “But being that there is synthetic here, she hates it so I retired her. She was sound and everything, and she could have run. We like going to New York, but we’d rather run at Del Mar and it made a lot of these (owners) just sick when they changed it.”
Baffert admits that he, along with many other trainers, were pro-synthetics when they were first installed. But the tide has now turned. If you took a poll of Santa Anita trainers today, at least 75 to 80 percent were probably dancing in their barns when word came that Pro-Ride has about three months to live.
“It’s just one of those things where we all thought it was going to work when they first came out with it, it was supposed to work, but it never did work like they said it would,” he said. “I knew immediately that it wasn’t going to work, but it was too late and all the money was put in. There were so many horsemen that were for it, and then I was vilified at the end because I didn’t like it. It was one of those things where I just had to keep my mouth shut, train on it and deal with it.”
Said Jess Jackson on Monday night when advised that Santa Anita was most likely going back to dirt: “Santa Anita is the icon of racing in Southern California, it always has been. The Santa Anita Handicap with Seabiscuit. You go back over the years and Santa Anita has a tradition of great racing. I think more horses will come west now if dirt is re-installed.”
One of the main problems, according to Baffert, is that track superintendents — save Hollywood Park’s Dennis Moore — do not know how to take care of synthetics.
“And I feel bad for them because I wouldn’t know what to do with it either,” he said.
If Baffert had his way, he would have utilized Moore’s knowledge.
“That Hollywood Park surface is not bad,” he said. “Dennis Moore, I don’t know what he did to that track, but it’s really not a bad race track. If you have a horse with brilliance, it actually shows up there. Once they get back to Santa Anita, it’s like they are stuck in the mud. They just don’t go anywhere. It’s terrible.”
Del Mar is in the same boat, according to the man who’s trained three Kentucky Derby winners and has a bevy of contenders in his barn this year.
“They’re stuck there, and they’re so hard-headed,” Baffert said. “I would hope Del Mar will do something down there, but I don’t know. Or at least make it like Hollywood. If they could make it like Hollywood, it wouldn’t be bad.”
So why didn’t Santa Anita enlist the aid of Moore? Why doesn’t Del Mar get on the phone and give him a jingle?
“Because these tracks, they don’t like to ask the other guys,” Baffert said. “If somebody’s doing well, for some reason nobody works together. Dennis Moore is the only guy that’s figured these things out. So if I’m going to bring somebody in, I’ll bring Dennis in and pay him to help these guys out. He’s the only guy that knows. I know it sounds logical, but it’s too easy, it’s too simple. Everybody hates everybody in racing, and that’s the problem.”
Zenyatta’s trainer, John Shirreffs, was not weeping when he heard about Santa Anita’s decision. He thinks Zenyatta is an even better horse on dirt, if that’s possible, and the fact she ran on synthetics might have affected Horse of the Year balloting.
“You see these crocodile tears?” Shirreffs said sarcastically. “Now the question is, did that cost (Zenyatta) Horse of the Year?”
Sherwood Chillingworth, director and executive vice president of the Oak Tree Racing Association, is still a fan of the synthetics, pointing out that there no were fatalities involving the 16 Breeders’ Cup races run on Pro-Ride the past two years. Yet, there is no proof there would have been any fatalities if the event had been run over a quality dirt track. In fact, a check of the Breeders’ Cup statistical record book shows that in both 2003 and 1993 when Santa Anita hosted the Breeders’ Cup on dirt, five races went off each year without incident.
“I applaud them if they go back to (dirt),” Jackson said. “It’s a shame that the CHRB forced two installations, and now there will be a third.”