Frank Stronach, chairman of Santa Anita’s parent company Magna Entertainment Corp., is due in town this weekend to meet with Southern California horsemen about a number of subjects, the biggest being the track’s future racing surface.
Track president Ron Charles announced Jan. 18 that Santa Anita will remove its current Pro-Ride surface at the end of the current meet and go a different route. At the time, Charles said track management was seriously considering the installation of a traditional dirt surface. It’s been widely speculated since that a dirt track was just a formality, that Santa Anita would be announcing its plans any day.
But days have turned to weeks, and it’s now been more than a month since the initial announcement and still no further word from Santa Anita.
On Jan. 31, Charles told me outside the Santa Anita winner’s circle that the announcement was being delayed because of Magna’s bankruptcy proceedings, that nothing could be officially announced until those were finalized.
On Feb. 6, the day Santa Anita was forced to cancel racing for a fourth time this season and 15th in the past three years when the track would not drain following heavy rain, Santa Anita GM George Haines told me he had no update on when an announcement would be made.
“I’m not sure of (Stronach’s) schedule,” Haines said.
Even though Stronach told me in an exclusive interview on the eve of his scheduled Southland arrival tonight that he won’t install a third synthetic at Santa Anita, one Southern California racing official familiar with the goings on at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar is convinced the pro-synthetic folks are trying to persuade Stronach to continue to support synthetics.
“It’s game on … (pro-synthetic officials) are pressing as hard as they can for synthetics,” said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic and the fact a final decision has not been announced. “They are doing everything they possibly can to lobby Frank to go (synthetics), that (Santa Anita) needs to stay the course here. And I know one of the (arguing points) is the cost.
“It will be a miracle if (Santa Anita) gets back to dirt. They’re all in to keep it synthetic.”
However, Stronach sounded a very different tone on Thursday.
“The synthetic surface, the way they are, I’ve never liked them,” he said.
He went on to say he is considering a sandy, dirt surface that includes a small amount of fiber but is basically a natural track that is “very safe.”
Stronach said he is keeping an open mind, but when asked if it was a safe bet to assume he was leaning toward the sandy surface, he said: “It’s a safe bet to say I will go through all the hoops to make sure we got the right surface.”
So perhaps this move to dirt is not a slam dunk after all.
Who will win out? Is Stronach so fed up with synthetics that nothing can sell him on installing a third edition, or will the pro-synthetic crowd influence him to give it another try “for the good of the industry?”
We can only hope that going through all the hoops to choose the right surface doesn’t turn out to be an exercise in disaster like Santa Anita’s Cushion Track and Pro-Ride surfaces.
I was one who believed this was a slam dunk. I still think the track will be more conventional than synthetic, but I’m not as sure as I was one week ago.