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HORSE RACING

Santa Anita could return to a dirt surface

Track president says the Pro-Ride synthetic surface will be removed after the winter meeting ends.

January 19, 2010|Eric Sondheimer

After canceling racing at Santa Anita on Monday because of pouring rain and poor track conditions, track President Ron Charles came forth with an even more startling announcement: The Pro-Ride synthetic surface will be removed at the conclusion of the winter meeting and a return to a dirt surface is "very seriously being considered," he said.

"The time has come to definitely make a change," Charles said.

Santa Anita was required to remove its dirt surface and install a synthetic surface under a state-wide mandate approved by the California Horse Racing Board in 2006. But the Arcadia track suffered repeated drainage problems after a Cushion Track synthetic surface was installed in 2007 and later replaced it with a different synthetic surface.

Monday's cancellation motivated Charles to acknowledge publicly what he has discussed privately -- that Santa Anita is considering a return to dirt.

The CHRB has already signaled that it would not stand in the way of any track interested in returning to a dirt surface.

"We would be open to the discussion," said Keith Brackpool, the new CHRB chairman.

Charles said the track reconfiguration could occur after the winter meeting finishes in April.

Trainer John Shirreffs, an outspoken critic of synthetic surfaces, was thrilled to learn about Santa Anita's plans.

"I'm glad to hear it," he said. "It's wonderful if one track in California is dirt."

But trainer Barry Abrams expressed apprehension, remembering that it was safety concerns with dirt that resulted in the CHRB mandate four years ago.

"Everything they did at Santa Anita was wrong and backward," he said. "They have no choice but to go to dirt. But the reason they put in synthetics was because no one wanted to come to California to race because it wasn't safe. By going back to dirt, they're going to create more problems. They'll have five-horse fields and three-days-a-week racing. The surface isn't the problem. It's the drainage."

Racing in the Southland already faces an uncertain future with Santa Anita's owner, Magna Entertainment Corp., in bankruptcy, and Hollywood Park only committed to racing through 2010 while waiting to tear down its track and develop the land.

"We need to know what the landscape looks like," said Joe Harper, president of Del Mar. "It's in a degree of flux. We can assume Santa Anita and Del Mar are going to be the guys with year-round racing. I don't see why it couldn't work out. We're trying to give these horses the safest track. We want a track that's forgiving, whether it's dirt or synthetic."

But Harper insisted he's satisfied with Del Mar's Polytrack synthetic surface.

"Our safety record has been good," he said.

A growing number of trainers have lost confidence in synthetic surfaces, which were supposed to be all-weather, consistent and safe, according to the early proponents.

The main thoroughbred tracks in California spent nearly $40 million to make the change to synthetic surfaces. Santa Anita could face a bill of at least $8 million when it finalizes its new track surface.

Meanwhile, racing is scheduled to resume at Santa Anita on Thursday, but that could be jeopardized by additional rain. The San Marcos Handicap, which was set to be run Monday, has been rescheduled for Sunday.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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