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HORSE RACING

Santa Anita debate focuses on track's synthetic surface

Some love the surface, some hate it, and some think Santa Anita manipulates the racetrack to make sure there is a large pick-six carryover.

February 16, 2009|Eric Sondheimer

Another day, another debate rages about Santa Anita's Pro-Ride synthetic surface, which is producing lots of supporters and detractors after 39 days of winter racing.

In the strangest twist yet, there already have been 17 pick-six carryovers, compared to 19 during the entire 85-day meeting of 2007, when the track had a dirt surface.

Some are calling the string of pick-six carryovers a track conspiracy to generate bigger crowds. Others say it's a coincidence.

"We've had upsets on the turf too, and that's why it's impossible for me to put a finger on it," Santa Anita President Ron Charles said Sunday.

What's clear is that the synthetic surface is proving challenging for handicappers and leaving longtime horsemen uncertain whether it's better to be on the lead or to come from behind in a race.

Through Saturday, 30.79% of the favorites had won races, slightly less than the typical 33% clip.

"The old speed bias is gone," leading trainer Doug O'Neill said. "It's almost like turf racing. Turf racing can be challenging. The best horse doesn't necessarily win. The best trip does."

It's another element to consider as California begins its second year of tracks using synthetic surfaces instead of dirt in a bid to make it safer for horses to race.

But injuries continue to happen. On Saturday, two horses went off in a van after races, with Gloriously breaking down just strides before the finish line while holding the lead in the seventh race. She was later euthanized and became the track's first racing fatality since early January.

The pick-six carryovers are considered good public relations for any track because they bring out first-time bettors interested in trying their luck for a big pot of money. Sunday's pick-six pool, aided by a $145,478 carryover, was $1,042,660.

Santa Anita saves the late races to have its largest fields, adding to the betting challenge. But regular bettors don't like inconsistency.

"We have to have the bettors and handicappers get more confidence with the surface," O'Neill said.

Charles said the wet weather has made the track slower and softer.

Trainer Bob Baffert added, "It's more unpredictable because there's a different bias every day. Anything can be manipulated, but nature is doing it right now."

Just when the conventional wisdom indicates that good turf horses should like a synthetic surface, explain what happened to Visit, the 3-2 favorite in Saturday's Grade I Santa Maria Handicap. She had run nine times on turf and was making her first start on a synthetic surface.

She finished sixth in a field of eight, one of 10 times that favorites lost on the 10-race card.

On Sunday, the reverse happened. There were so many favorites that won that the pick six returned only $971.20, with 663 winning tickets.

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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