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Concerns still surface over Del Mar track

Fatalities were down the last two years, but some say the track overreacted to slower times in 2007 by watering Polytrack.

September 04, 2008|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

DEL MAR -- Two years after the state required major thoroughbred racetracks to install synthetic surfaces, the Southern California racing industry is still wrestling with the costs and benefits of the investment.

It was here two summers ago where the allure of horses running at the famed seaside track was spoiled by the fatal breakdowns of 19 animals, clinching a cry for action after the statewide deaths of 240 horses between 2003 and 2005.

Del Mar's new Polytrack installed last year cut down on fatalities, but also led to much slower racing, frustrating horsemen and troubling track executives desperate to please the lifeblood of the sport, handicappers.

Management's solution this summer was to water down the racing surface to create a firmer track, which resulted in faster racing. But the conditions created a new issue: an apparent increase in non-fatal injuries.

Just two weeks into the Del Mar season, which concluded Wednesday, concerned trainers met with track executives to present survey results showing that 69 horses had already suffered season- or career-ending injuries.

Since then, track officials and some owners and trainers say they have reached a tenuous peace regarding the new surface.

Racing and training deaths at Del Mar have been reduced from the 2006 carnage to six in 2007, and eight this season.

Joe Harper, Del Mar's president, also pointed to statistics gathered by the Southern California Equine Foundation showing 389 X-rays of sore or injured horses required this season, compared with 456 in 2005 and 439 in 2006. Some 2,400 horses train or race at Del Mar.

And eight speed records were set this summer.

"This has been a very successful meet, and I can't see this situation going anywhere but getting better," Harper said Wednesday. "There's been a significant reduction of injuries."

Trainer Gary Sherlock said that the consensus was that something needed to be done, but by the end of the meeting, "the track was pretty good."

Still, not everyone is sold on synthetics.

Trainer John Shirreffs, whose horses Zenyatta and Madeo captured combined purses of more than $650,000 by winning the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap and Del Mar Derby, respectively, says synthetics are "too hard" on young horses.

He complains the weather-sensitive tracks feature an unpredictable maintenance schedule that causes headaches for trainers trying to script a race plan.

"I've asked that we put the money we're putting into these surfaces into research that will allow us to do a better job of saving injured horses, but, being a logical person seeing how things are now, you ask yourself, why go against City Hall?" Shirreffs said.

John Sadler, who led Del Mar trainers in starts and money won ($2 million-plus) this summer, said the track's push for more speed resulted in "not more, but different" injuries, with more tenderness being found this year around the feet, hind-leg, back and bottom.

The trainers' concern about introducing so much water to the seven-inch Polytrack mixture of silica sand, recycled rubber, fibers and wax over a blacktop base peaked early in the meet in July, when they met with track executives.

"They made it too hard, there's no give," thoroughbred owner Tom Garrity said this week. "It's like they're running on concrete."

Garrity's 3-year-old filly Tess In Paradise suffered a fractured knee during a morning workout Aug. 9. The independent investment advisor from Oceanside contends Del Mar executives "overreacted" to last year's slow times by exposing horses to unsafe conditions.

Harper counters that trainers and owners have long blamed injuries on track conditions, adding he has ordered Del Mar's veterinarians to scratch horses from races for even "the most minuscule" health concern in pre-race inspections.

Trainer Bob Baffert said his reluctance to embrace synthetic tracks remains rooted in news like that at Saratoga, where no horse has been euthanized in afternoon racing on dirt this summer. "I think synthetics take away the brilliance from a horse," he said.

Baffert, who shifted to Saratoga last summer after a powerful owner relocated his stable there, returned to Del Mar for this year's meet.

"This was sold to us as being better than dirt," Baffert said this week. "If it's not better than dirt, why have it?"

At Santa Anita, meanwhile, the rain drainage woes that canceled 11 dates in January and February forced officials to launch a complete overhaul of its new, $11-million Cushion Track. All of the track material was pulled up and treated with a polymer binder application as a new drainage system was installed.

"We're extremely confident we won't miss a day of racing this year," Santa Anita President Ron Charles said. The track is the site of the two-day Breeders' Cup in late October.

Santa Anita is also working with Cal-OSHA to address a formal complaint by a member of the starting gate crew earlier this year that the track was releasing unhealthful fumes. Testing was performed Wednesday, Charles said, with results expected by Friday.

"We have gone to great lengths to conform to environmental standards, and I believe everything is well within limits," Charles said. "We'll have a meeting with the [starters'] union before the season, and show them the results. We are not going to have issues."

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lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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