Oak Tree’s opening day, Sept. 24, brought sweltering temperatures back to Southern California, almost as if by design to test the new Pro-Ride synthetic surface. The surface heated up, but after the day’s six races over it (the other three being on turf), reviews were generally optimistic.
"It looks really good and felt good in the first race," said jockey Rafael Bejarano, who won three races on the opening day card. Two of his wins came over the synthetic surface, including the first of the day aboard odds-on favorite Costa Marta. "It looks like it is very fair, and it’s consistent."
Trainer Marty Jones saddled Costa Marta, a 2-year-old California-bred son of Bertrando he bred in partnership with owner Donald Valpredo. Jones trains at Hollywood Park and had shipped Costa Marta across town to win.
Jockey Aaron Gryder said he has been pleased with the spring that the Pro-Ride track has.
"It comes back much quicker," he said. "You can see it come back when you’re behind horses."
Vladimir Cerin, who trains at Santa Anita, finished first with two horses on opening day—Seven Point One and Benchmark Kid. The latter was disqualified to third in a double disqualification.
"The track has been good in the mornings," said Cerin. "I haven’t had a whole lot of problems with it."
Ian Pearse of Pro-Ride Racing Australia spent much of the summer overseeing the extensive renovation of Santa Anita’s main surface. Horses trained over it throughout the three-week Los Angeles County Fair meeting at Fairplex Park in Pomona, and overall horsemen have been pleased.
"Considering how well-received it was during the training portion, we were equally as pleased with the results that we had today," said Santa Anita president Ron Charles. "In talking with owners and trainers, the consistent thing seemed to be that the track was consistent. Times were playing fair, and there wasn’t a variation, which we’ve been striving for and is one of the things we’ve been talking to Ian so much about."
Pearse returned to Santa Anita from Australia Sept. 22. He was to remain on site through Sept. 27, when Oak Tree has carded six grade I stakes, all of them with Breeders’ Cup ramifications. On opening day, he closely monitored both the morning workouts and afternoon races.
"I have a lot of faith and confidence in Ian," said Charles. "I think today passed with flying colors."
Pearse has said that the Pro-Ride track does not require a lot of maintenance, and trainers have urged Santa Anita management not to work the track often.
"There aren’t any intentions of doing anything to the track," Charles said. "We are taking it on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis, and Ian will continue to evaluate it."
Winning prices on the six opening-day races over the Pro-Ride track ranged from the $3.40 Costa Marta paid to the $29.20 for Lardog, who was elevated to first upon the double disqualification. Though no horse won on the lead, winners came from second, mid-pack, and far back.
Pearse says that the polymetric binder used in Pro-Ride has more temperature tolerance than synthetic tracks that are wax-based. Charles said that it had not been necessary to water the track on opening day to cool it down.
"Synthetic surfaces are going to get a little warmer (than dirt)," Charles said. "When it gets to that point, then we can water it. But that’s the only reason we would water the track, to cool it off. Wax-based tracks need water to keep them together because when it gets hot, the wax spreads."
Charles added, "The temperature went from 90-97 degrees (during the races), and the times were about as consistent as you can get."
The track surface is being closely watched since the Breeders' Cup World Championships will be run at the track Oct. 24-25, the first time the event will be run over a synthetic surface in its 25-year history.