Don’t despair race fans, things might be looking up

As the Great Race Place prepares to run its signature race, the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, for the 73rd time today, all may not be lost on the local front that is California horse racing.


* Upon returning home from a trip to California in which he managed to alienate the California Horse Racing Board, confound horsemen and perhaps shock the media with his announcement that he would not soon be replacing a Santa Anita track that on occasion resembles a lake more than a racing surface, Frank Stronach sent signals to the powers that be that he will indeed be replacing the track, for officials to continue searching for a suitable replacement. It appears Stronach might be doing a little posturing, seeking some concessions and perhaps financial help in laying down the new surface. He knows Santa Anita needs a new surface, and sooner rather than later. Now when that happens is anybody’s guess, but Stronach believes the new track can be laid down in eight weeks and it’s still a good bet that Santa Anita will have a new traditional dirt surface by the beginning of the Oak Tree meet.

* A weather forecast that called for a 70 percent chance of rain beginning early this morning and potentially causing the sixth cancellation of the meet and the first postponement of the Big ‘Cap, has suddenly turned in Santa Anita’s favor. The chance of rain has been reduced to 60 percent and a storm that was originally supposed to drop as much as two inches of rain on the Southland now is expected to yield about a half-inch, an amount even Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface can handle. For one of the few times this meet, track president Ron Charles may be able to smile today.

* There are two schools of thought regarding when California horse racing began its decline. Trainer Mel Stute believes the formation of the Thoroughbred Owners of California signaled the beginning of the demise, while another veteran horseman, Bruce Headley, says the additon of wood products to the state’s tracks beginning in the ’70s was the start of the downturn. Headley said he’s been witness to three eras — the traditional sandy loam tracks, the wood product tracks and the synthetic surfaces. He says his barn hasn’t suffered any fatalities since the synthetics were mandated by the CHRB, but injuries are much more plentiful. He cited Surf Cat, who was one of the soundest horses he’s ever trained yet suffered a career-ending shoulder injury during the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita.

* Anybody who doesn’t think Alex Solis can still ride should check out a replay of Thursday’s third race at Santa Anita when Solis guided the Howard Zucker-trained Worth a Punt to a nose victory over Siete Machos in the starter allowance event. Sixth early on in the eight-horse field comprised of 3-year-olds, Solis saved ground with Worth a Punt around the turf, angled out in the stretch and closed resolutely to score his 12th victory of the meet. He raised that total to 13 on Friday when he won the seventh race for trainer Dan Hendricks. Hopefully, Solis will get the honor this year that he’s deserved for years by being voted into the Hall of Fame.

* Here’s our selections for today’s four graded stakes races at Santa Anita:
Sham — I like Nextdoorneighbor. Trainer Mike Machowsky believes the Lido Palace colt could be better than his unbeaten stablemate, Caracortado, and he’s got the numbers to win the Grade 3 event.
Santa Anita Oaks — Blind Luck won her last start by a nose in the one-mile Las Virgenes on talent alone. She’s not a one-mile filly. She’ll be better at today’s distance of 1 1/16 miles and even stronger in the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Oaks on April 30 if she enters the starting gate.
Kilroe Mile — OK, I admit I’d like to see Fluke, the Grade 1 Citation Handicap winner at Hollywood Park on Nov. 27, win this one for trainer Humberto Ascanio, the late Bobby Frankel’s former assistant who’s lost most of his good horses to other trainers since Frankel’s death. Fluke is certainly capable of winning in this spot because he’s been first or second in four of his six grass races at the distance and is one for two over the Santa Anita lawn.
Santa Anita Handicap — The John Shirreffs Tour de Force continues as Neko Bay, coming off a victory in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap on Jan. 9, finds the winner’s circle to give both Shirreffs and jockey Mike Smith their first taste of Big ‘Cap success. Shirreffs’ other entrant, Mast Track, is also dangerous if he gets out on the lead by himself. But let’s face it, nine of the 14 starters could win here in one of the most wide-open Big ‘Caps ever.

I leave you with a stretch replay of my favorite all-time Big ‘Cap, when Vigors came charging home from last to win the 1978 edition. I’ve never seen a horse who could accelerate as quickly as “the big white horse,” as track announcer Dave Johnson calls him, until Zenyatta hit the scene:

11 thoughts on “Don’t despair race fans, things might be looking up

  1. Art? Do you not think Stronach envisions a future where 2 super meets, Oak Tree fall, Meydan spring, become what racing good horses is all about? Thus, the need for an AW in So Cal. Stronach does not go to bed thinking about overnight horses.

  2. Douglas: Not sure what Frank is thinking about, to tell you the truth. I just know Santa Anita needs a new surface before Oak Tree and I’m still betting it will be dirt.


    Gary Stevens
    March 3, 2010
    Mother Nature and Track SurfacesThis winter has been a rough one for racing around the country, not just at the Great Race Place Santa Anita, but there have been cancellations in every section of the United States. My question is, is it due to Mother Nature or the racing surfaces?

    When Oaklawn Park was forced to cancel I did not hear one comment that it was because Oaklawn has a poor surface. As the debate continues over synthetic tracks versus conventional dirt I may as well put in my two cents worth. There are good and bad in everything and tracks are not excluded. It is my feeling that with the amount of rainfall Santa Anita has been hit with in the first two months of 2010, that there is not a surface in the world that could have handled it as quickly as it hit. If the track was still conventional we would have had a sealed surface that would have had washouts and been uneven in places. Does no one remember the injuries that were sustained on sealed race tracks? I sure do. I got to the point where I refused to ride on them because of what the concussion through the horse, transferred to me, did to my knees.

    These tracks, I believe, were directly responsible for cutting my career short. These quick fixes just so racing could continue, also in my opinion, contributed to shortening or ending many equine athletes over the years. We need to ask ourselves the question, is it the surface, or the drainage of the track, or Mother Nature, or a combination that has led to five cancellations in the first two months of the year.

    To me this is Mother Natures way of saying Be patient. Every horse that didnt race was able to walk out of their stall the next morning. Could we say that if Santa Anita was still a conventional dirt surface? I dont think so. Before we decide to go back to conventional I think all should consider the repercussions that will follow. Many owners from around the country have brought horses to California to compete in top class racing on both turf and synthetic over the past two seasons. Californias horse population is down. It will go down again if we return to dirt. We should find a surface or system that will handle the rainfall but also be safe. I dont feel that the paved roads created by sealing a racetrack are the answer.

    The old line never mess with Mother Nature comes to mind. A lot of you will say that Mother Nature never created synthetic racetracks. True, but she gave us the ability to.

    I am friends with a good many of the jockeys riding at SA..can say it is about 95% that they strongly favor the synthetic over dirt…If the drainage can be resolved.

  4. Henry: the drainage is not the problem. The problem is that these tracks promised many things and have delivered on none of them. Gary doesn’t point out the fact that many owners and trainers are leaving because of the synthetic. Jerry Moss might be the next owner to go. We see many of our top 3-year-olds sent to other parts of the country to prepare for the Derby because we don’t have dirt. Lookin At Lucky is on his way to Oaklawn and its dirt track. I doubt he’d be leaving if Santa Anita still had dirt. This doesn’t even address all the new injuries that have cropped up since the synthetics were installed. And let me just leave you with this — if these synthetics are such a boon to the sport, why is it that 75 percent of the trainers were in favor of them when they were first installed and now 75 percent are against them, including many trainers who have enjoyed success over them.

  5. When did Mr Moss say he was leaving CA? Very recently said he hopes racing in CA survives and hopes he does not have to leave CA.

    I don’t have a strong opinion either way (I think its too early to tell), but just read Bill Casner (Winstar Owner)on Blood Horse paint a 180 degree opposite view about the surface from what you just said. I know many of people with opinions, almost makes you dizzy listening to all of it. Clocker Toby Turrell loves SA, says its the best surface he has ever seen, Clocker Bruno hates SA, hates dirt Churchill and likes Del Mar and HP.

    My feeling is like in many discussions/arguments the reality is in the middle ground somewhere.

    Lets hope for a good year for the sport we all enjoy!!

  6. Henry — Whoa!!! I didn’t say Jerry Moss was leaving. I said he “might” be leaving. There’s a very big difference because I still think we’re going to see a new dirt track at Santa Anita sooner rather than later. My final point is this — if the tracks had spent half of the money they’ve spent on synthetics (conservatively about $50 million) to fix the dirt tracks with new bases that badly needed replacing and better quality dirt, well, IMO we’d be a lot better off. To me, the drainage issue at Santa Anita can’t be blamed on synthetics because it was a faulty synthetic to begin with and has never been properly fixed. As far as I’ve heard, other synthetics around the country, including Hollywood Park and Del Mar, are draining just fine. I outlined my problems with synthetics in my first response to you. When they were first put in, I was truly on the fence. I wanted to see how they’d work. I have been less than duly impressed so far.

  7. Gary Steven was a great Jockey.

    Other than him talking about that he’s a terrible handicapper, terrible Trainer, and his opinion on the surface is irrelevant. 70% of Trainers want a change so what else does anyone need to know.

  8. No surprise here that Gary Stevens is coming out in support of synthetic tracks since he’s employed by Magna (HRTV) that has one. It’s called covering your ass.

  9. Quoting Gary Stevens – “It is my feeling that with the amount of rainfall Santa Anita has been hit with in the first two months of 2010, that there is not a surface in the world that could have handled it as quickly as it hit.”

    Gary – you are wrong.

    Golden Gate Fields’ Tapeta Footings surface has handled twice as much main as Santa Anita, has drained perfectly and since being installed more than 2 years ago, has NOT LOST a SINGLE day of racing.

  10. ING,

    Mr. Stronach has said he does not like synthetic, so I doubt G. Stevens is under some “pressure” to pump up the surface. But then Stronach is leading owner and wins all the big races at Woodbine, so he may not run at SA because he does not like synthetic, he has no problems with 100+ starters at the Poly/Woodbine. As for the 70% of trainers who dont like it..How many trainers in CA carry an opinion that really matters more than what a top jockey would opine, 15?. If you ask Gomez, Solis, Bejarano, Stevens for their opinion wouldnt it be worth at least what a mid tier trainer would offer? Think you can difinitely respect Sheriffs, Sadler for sure for their consistent disdain, even though they are both successful dirt or synthetic. But to counter Mandella, Harty, Hofmans are just as respected and feel strongly the other way.

    Perfect world to me would be tracks could offer both surfaces, on the rainy days run on a properly drained track and get rid of the rock hard surfaces and dirt for those horses that can not train consistently on synthetic without getting body sore or foot issues that appear to be an issue with synthetic.

    I understand Stronach wants to run year round at SA and hopes the state will back down, if it does he may find some $$$ for the track, if not who knows. Where would the horses come from to have 2 tracks in So Cal running at the same time? Saw HP eliminated several stakes today for the Spring Meet.

  11. I relish, cause I found just what I was having a look for. You have ended my four day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye

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