Following a test of several horses galloping over the backstretch, Santa Anita management has given the go-ahead to return to racing Saturday, Feb. 9. The track has been closed since Sunday, Feb. 3, for a renovation of its Cushion Track surface to fix the drainage problem that has plagued the surface throughout the current meet.
At about 11:30 a.m. Feb. 8, horses stepped out onto the surface, to which materials from Pro-Ride Australia have been added, to provide feedback to horsemen, track management, and Pro-Ride’s Ian Pearse. In from Australia, Pearse has spearheaded the renovation. As the riders returned, they gave the surface a thumbs-up.
“The horse loved it,” said trainer Barry Abrams after conferring with his exercise rider. “It apparently felt like he wasn’t even hitting the ground.”
Other trainers out walking the surface by the finish line included Richard Mandella and Howard Zucker. Pearse also stood out in the center of the track watching the horses, and he then spoke to a group of horsemen and media.
“We still have to put more fiber in the bottom chute, and we have to look at the back straight,” Pearse said. He explained that he and the track crew will continue to work around the clock to mix the fiber into the rest of the track and make it consistent.
The horses tested the track on the backstretch because that part of the track had the binder and fiber already mixed in. While the entire track had a gray cast to it, the stretch where the fiber was sitting on top and hadn’t yet been mixed in to Pearse’s satisfaction looked extremely gray. The rest of the track had a browner color.
“We wanted them to get a feel for the track, and we wanted to get some feedback,” said Santa Anita president Ron Charles. “Then we’ll work it all day today (Feb. 8) and be open for training and racing tomorrow (Feb. 9). Right now, it’s not perfectly level, but it isn’t all mixed in yet. We will be working all day and all night to make sure that it’s totally consistent.”
Initially, the plan was to begin work after the races Sunday, Feb. 3, and race again Friday, Feb. 8, though Charles and Pearse both acknowledged that would be a best-case scenario. When rain fell again the night of Saturday, Feb. 2, and into Feb. 3, Santa Anita canceled the races and the renovation work was delayed.
“We had to go slow because of the weather,” Charles explained. “Instead of two or three passes to put the binder in, it took seven or eight.”
Santa Anita last summer installed a Cushion Track synthetic surface to follow a California Horse Racing Board mandate that all major California tracks have a synthetic main track by the end of 2007. Hollywood Park had already installed a Cushion Track surface, while Del Mar put in Polytrack and Golden Gate Fields in Northern California opted for Tapeta. Bay Meadows received a one-year waiver of the mandate.
Because of the wax and fine sand used in Santa Anita’s surface, it has never drained properly through the asphalt base. Santa Anita underwent a renovation project in December before its meeting began Dec. 26 to attempt to fix the problem, but it did not succeed.
Once Santa Anita began losing days to wet weather, management contemplated various solutions, including asking the CHRB for a waiver to allow the track to return to a dirt surface. However, after consulting with Pearse of Pro-Ride, who did tests in conjunction with the University of Southern California, management decided to have Pearse apply his liquid binder and fiber to try to fix the drainage problem.
Pearse said that they will continue to do testing with water to be sure the surface is draining properly. He will also be working with the track maintenance crew over the next week to design a maintenance program. Pearse has said that, while he has a maintenance program for the Pro-Ride surfaces he has installed in Australia and Kentucky, this one may react somewhat differently because it is a mixture of the old Cushion Track and the new materials.
Santa Anita has lost an unprecedented 11 days of racing due to the track difficulties. The most recent lost day, Friday, Feb. 8, is scheduled to be made up Wednesday, Feb. 13. Charles has said that Santa Anita will apply to the CHRB to make up other lost days later on in the season, probably with six-day weeks instead of the usual five-day weeks.
“This will be a permanent fix for the rest of the meet,” Charles said. “We’ve made a huge investment, not only in time, but in understanding the technology. Then, I think everyone will step back and evaluate it as to how successful it was, how the horsemen liked it, and how the horses fared. After the meet, we’ll determine how we move forward, with the clear understanding that we have the Breeders’ Cup this year (Oct. 24-25 during the Oak Tree meet). We have to know we have a safe, kind track, and one that drains.”
Following the close of the meet, Santa Anita will re-evaluate with horsemen’s input to see whether further work or replacement will be needed, Charles said.