Santa Anita Unveils Cushion Track with Oak Tree Meet Sept. 26

Santa Anita racetrack will unveil racing over the Cushion Track surface Sept. 26, when the Oak Tree Racing Association begins its 39th season, highlighted by a simulcast presentation of the 24th Breeders’ Cup Worth Thoroughbred Championship races from Monmouth Park Oct. 26 and 27.

The meet will no doubt get off to a rapid start as all fans attending on opening day will receive a collector’s item souvenir paperweight packed with original dirt from Santa Anita’s historic main track, which dates to 1934. The item will be free to the first 15,000 fans with paid general admission and will include a color photo of a group of Thoroughbreds turning for home and an inscription documenting the significance of the enclosed soil.

“As we usher in a new era at Oak Tree, we really believe this paperweight is going to be something our fans will treasure for years to come,” Oak Tree Racing Association Executive Vice President Sherwood Chillingworth said in a Sept. 21 press release. “We’re excited that Oak Tree is going to be the first meet at Santa Anita to run on Cushion Track, and it’s especially gratifying to know that with the Breeders’ Cup returning to Oak Tree in 2008, next year’s edition will be the first ever to be run on a synthetic surface.”

Cushion Track is the same brand Hollywood Park installed earlier, but varies from the Polytrack for which Del Mar opted. In each instance, however, Southern California’s three major tracks have now complied with the mandate of the California Horse Racing Board which decreed that in order to be issued dates, said tracks must have synthetic main surfaces by the end of this year.

“The new track will be kinder and gentler to horses,” said Santa Anita president Ron Charles. “They will run longer and stay sounder. Safety is our primary concern and this surface will save the lives of race horses.”

California-based trainer Doug O’Neill dismissed judgments from detractors who say patience should have been exercised before the mandate was implemented.

“You could be running on orthopedic mattresses and you’d have people complaining,” O’Neill said. “That’s the nature of any business. You’re going to have people who want to bash certain things, but I think what (CHRB Chairman) Richard Shapiro has done for California racing has been brilliant. He’s put the horse first. People will come back to the races if they can go and not worry about a handful of horses being vanned off the track every day. I don’t know the exact numbers, but we’ve already seen field sizes increase, and it sure looks like Del Mar and Hollywood had a lot better meets than before.”

Meanwhile, chances of O’Neill’s marquee horse, Lava Man, running on Breeders’ Cup day at Monmouth Park Oct. 27, seem tenuous.

“The two possibilities for his next race are the Goodwood (Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on Cushion Track Sept. 29) or the Oak Tree Mile (Oct. 7 on turf),” O’Neill said. “He’s versatile enough that we can consider turf or Cushion for him, but I think he’ll have to really run huge in one of those races for the Breeders’ Cup to be an option. But as we speak, he’s doing great.”

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