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Santa Anita is awash in controversy over surface

Saturday’s Santa Anita Handicap may be cancelled by rain, because synthetic track doesn’t drain. State board chief and track owner appear to disagree on solution.

March 04, 2010|Bill Dwyre

Thursday was a postcard day for horse racing at Santa Anita. Blue skies, soft clouds, swaying palm trees. The homes halfway up the San Gabriel Mountains were in clear view.

Had you just dropped in from Mars, you would be certain you'd found racing heaven.

It's not. At least not at the moment.

All the attention should be on Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap. It's the featured race of four months of featured races. They once had 85,527 people show up for it, back in 1985. It is the race in which Seabiscuit beat Kayak II and inspired the movie. Affirmed won it. So did Spectacular Bid and Alysheba. John Henry and Lava Man each won it twice.

Racing lives on in history and legend. The Big Cap has it and is it.

But the weather and its foibles and the humans and their politics have intervened. The story is less the race and more whether there will be one Saturday. And if not, why not and when will this all be fixed? The entire saga of California horse racing these days has fans demanding, in Jim Healy radio style, "Who goofed? I've got to know."

This will be the 73rd running of the Big Cap. It has never been postponed or cancelled. Saturday's forecast is for 70% chance of rain. In the good old days, before Santa Anita followed the mandate of the California Horse Racing Board and installed a synthetic track in 2008, that wouldn't have been an issue.

On Thursday, one veteran track official described a particularly bad winter in the late 1960s. He said there was constant rain, mudslides, houses sliding down the hills surrounding the track.

"There were some pretty lousy off-tracks, but we never missed a day of racing," he said.

If the Big Cap is rained out Saturday — with two other Grade I races, the Kilroe Mile and the Oaks, as well as the rescheduled Grade III Sham Stakes — it will mark the sixth lost day at this meeting. It will also be the 18th lost day since the installation of synthetics in 2008. Before that, Santa Anita had lost four — count ‘em, four — days to weather since it opened Christmas Day, 1934.

To be fair, other California tracks have fared better with the synthetics, ordered by the CHRB for safety purposes. Those results have been mixed. Not Santa Anita's. Its track doesn't drain. Horses can't swim fast, so racing gets called off.

This was all headed toward a logical conclusion. On Jan. 18, Santa Anita President Ron Charles announced that, after the meeting ended in April, a new track would be installed. The CHRB now said that was OK. Charles didn't specifically say so, but the presumption was that the surface would be good, old-fashioned, time-tested dirt.

But early this week, track owner Frank Stronach plodded into the muck. He said the surface might not be replaced, that it might remain synthetic. In the midst of bankruptcy proceedings involving his parent company, an action from which Santa Anita was recently removed, Stronach seemed to be concerned about the $10-million price tag to replace the track.

In a classic head-scratcher quote, Stronach said, "As an intelligent person, you don't go out and spend $10 million without research."

A hundred years of horses racing on dirt is not research?

Charles was out of town Thursday and unavailable for comment. Had he been here, he probably wouldn't have commented, anyway, since it would have been tough from under the bus where Stronach threw him. Charles is good at shutting up and holding things together. Reach your own conclusion on Stronach.

In summary, Southern California racing has Santa Anita, aka The Big Puddle. It has Hollywood Park, aka The Wrecking Ball. It has Del Mar, aka Ocean View and Scary Track.

It also has the Breeders' Cup wanting to come to Santa Anita on a permanent basis, but to a track surface it won't accept.

Healy had it right. Who goofed? We've got to know.

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