California racing associations that operate meets of at least four continuous weeks would be required to install a synthetic racing surface by the end of 2007 or face a loss of dates, the state's horseracing board decided Feb. 16.
After hearing from Craig Fravel, executive vice president at Del Mar, give a report on progress on the proposed installation of Polytrack at the seaside track, chairman Richard Shapiro surprised the 100 or so at the CHRB meeting in Arcadia with his motion to require all the major racing venues in the state to make the switch. It was approved unanimously. The new regulation must be weighed for a 45-day public comment period before the board can finalize it.
Shapiro said later that he was referring to only Thoroughbred tracks. That means Cal Expo, which hosts harness racing and rarely has a breakdown, and Quarter Horse venue Los Alamitos are not required to install new racing surfaces.
"We cannot afford, in my opinion, not to move forward with this," Shapiro said, noting that there had been more than 240 fatalities of California horses at tracks between 2003 and 2005. He said that the board will assist in identifying potential funding souces and help push any legislative support required.
Trainer Howard Zucker, head of the track safety committee in Southern California, complained prior to the vote there "are way too many problems" with the racing surface at Santa Anita Park after earlier praising the effort of Magna Entertainment Corp. to fix the track.
Afterward, he said it was a "thrill" to see the CHRB take action. "It brought a tear to my eye," Zucker said. "I think three years ago you couldn't have gotten a hearing. But this is a quality board -- they've brought things out in the open."
In December, the CHRB heard Zucker and a number of other trainers complain about the existing racing surfaces in Southern California, blaming them for the notoriously high rate of Thoroughbred breakdowns. Track operators pledged to improve the situation, with Fravel and Jack Liebau of the Bay Meadows Racing Association expressing the most interest in installing Polytrack.
Liebau, whose company owns Hollywood Park as well as the Bay Area track, said he remains enthusiastic about the potential of Polytrack but was surprised by the board's action.
"I think we should go a little slower on this," he said after the vote, adding, "The problem is whether there is sufficient quantity and quality of sand that can be gathered for all the tracks in California. Nobody knows what this will cost. You don't know how Polytrack is going to work in California."
Liebau said at Hollywood Park, 20,000 tons of sand that must be imported from Illinois would be required. He said Hollywood is testing various combinations of sand and synthetic material to determine what works best, but he believes it would have been smarter to install the new surface at one or two tracks initially. Shapiro said cost estimates range between $6 million and $9 million per installation.
Polytrack -- a blend of fiber, recycled rubber, and silica sand coated with wax -- was installed at Turfway Park last year. Fravel provided statistics from Turfway showing how much safer it was than traditional track surfaces. For instance, there were only three catstrophic breakdowns from among 4,479 starters during the fall/holiday meeting from September to December, he noted. In addition, wagering jumped drastically over the same period a year before. All-source wagering ($74.3 million) improved 37.7% as a result, he believes, of running on a surface without a track bias.
Fravel told the CHRB that Del Mar is pushing ahead with plans for Polytrack after getting a favorable response from the agricultural district board that oversees the track fairgrounds. It goes to the California Coastal Commission for final approval.
Ron Charles, representing Magna, which owns Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields, said officials "are doing thorough due diligence" on the issue of Polytrack and have received favorable feedback.
Fravel said that 94% of jockeys at Turfway say the track is safer than it was previously and 85% of trainers in Northern Kentucky agreed. He and Liebau both said they received nothing but praise for the composite surface in visits there.
"We couldn't find anyone to complain about it," Fravel said, "and at a racetrack that's amazing."
The board put over until at least next month any action on a longstanding dispute on hub fee rates -- the share of handle that account deposit wagering companies receive -- between TVG and the Thoroughbred Owners of California. Representatives of the ADW company, racing associations and the TOC conferred outside the meeting at Arcadia City Hall throughout the morning and afternoon before Drew Couto, president of the TOC, requested a continuance of the matter at the end of the racing board meeting.
A representative for TVG said afterward that the disagreement over the racing law on ADW has called the role of the horsemen's group in negotiations on setting hub fees into question. Dean Florez, the California state senator who chairs the influential Governmental Organization committee and has taken an active role in horseracing issues, was present during the impromptu negotiation session.