About 40 Southern California-based trainers met with Pro-Ride head Ian Pearse Jan. 7 at Santa Anita Park to voice their concerns over the condition of Santa Anita’s synthetic racing surface, which Pearse installed a year ago.
Unlike meetings last year, where a majority of trainers defended the installation of synthetic surfaces at the state’s racetracks, the vast number of trainers who spoke at Santa Anita this time expressed disappointment with the performance and condition of Pearse’s Pro-Ride surface. Pearse added materials to the Cushion Track synthetic surface that failed to drain after heavy rains early in 2008.
Critics of Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface included trainers such as Vladimir Cerin and Bruce Headley, who have both had success over the synthetic surfaces in California, and who both have spoken in favor of them in the past.
The California Horse Racing Board mandated in 2007 that the major racetracks in the state install synthetic surfaces.
After the occurrence of five breakdowns in the initial five days of racing at Santa Anita, including three fatalities so far, trainer Darrell Vienna said he walked the track with fellow conditioners Mark Glatt and Clifford Sise Jan. 3 following training hours.
“It was horrific,” Vienna told The Blood-Horse Jan. 7. “There were holes, it was uneven, and it was dangerous. Given, it was at the end of training hours, but it still shouldn’t have been like that.”
The Jan. 7 meeting at Santa Anita was not sanctioned by the California Thoroughbred Trainers, which has come out in favor of synthetic surfaces in the past.
Bob Baffert, one of the earliest critics of California’s synthetic surfaces, attended the meeting and noted, “The majority of trainers do not like this surface now. You have to train differently over it, and it’s tough on young horses. I’m doing well, and I still don’t like them,” Baffert, who won two Breeders’ Cup races over the surface in October, said.
Vienna, who was at one time supportive of synthetic surfaces “based on what I thought could happen,” stated, “They’re no good. The promises at the beginning were they were safe, consistent, maintenance-free, and all-weather. They are not safe, they’re not maintenance-free, they’re not consistent, and they can’t take water. None of it is true.”
The problems with Santa Anita’s main track come as Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky saw eight fatal breakdowns in 21 racing cards over its Polytrack surface last month. Also, Golden Gate Fields was closed for training earlier this week after horsemen at the Northern California track complained about its Tapeta Footings surface. Tapeta’s Michael Dickinson said his crew added fibers and wax to the surface, and training resumed Jan. 7.
Pearse, in attempting to answer trainers’ concerns at the Santa Anita meeting, admitted that he was trying to learn on the fly the best way to maintain his surface given the number of horses working over it in the mornings. At one point during the meeting Vienna stated that the horsemen were like "guinea pigs" and Pearse agreed with him.
Vienna later stated, “After this meeting, I have no confidence that Ian Pearse can fix this track. Trainers don’t want to drive off owners by saying these tracks are no good, but the problems we had with dirt tracks haven’t been cured. We still have the disease, just with different injuries. The trajectory of these synthetic surfaces is they get worse over time.”
Extra maintenance may not necessarily work on Santa Anita’s surface, because, trainers say, the harrowing equipment tends to break up the track’s ingredients.
“They are going to try and manipulate the track to make it work,” said Vienna. “We should be planning to put in a better one; doing the groundwork to find out what works and is sustainable. Synthetic surfaces are not sustainable.”