Commentary: When Is Diligence Due?

Commentary:  When Is Diligence Due?
Photo: File Photo
Dan Liebman: Editor-in-Chief
After more than six hours of panel discussions Feb. 20 at Santa Anita Park, little new was learned about the track’s problems with its synthetic surface, which was installed by Cushion Track and is now functional only because of a fix by the company that perhaps should have been awarded the contract in the first place, Pro-Ride of Australia.

There are trainers who like the surface; there are trainers who hate it. There are vets who have seen more injuries; there are vets who have seen fewer.

But no one can be happy about 11 lost days of racing that cost industry participants millions of dollars, caused some horses to lose valuable training time, and further questioned the mandate by the California Horse Racing Board to force the major tracks in the state to install synthetic surfaces in the first place.

In hindsight, many of those lost days due to the track’s drainage problems could have been avoided by moving racing to Hollywood Park while Santa Anita figured out its mix of materials that comprise synthetic surfaces.

Perhaps the most interesting statement made at the lengthy meeting, which was convened by the CHRB, came at the very end, when Santa Anita president Ron Charles stated the Cushion Track will be taken up and replaced by another surface when the meet ends April 20.

“We will be going out and doing a lot more due diligence,” Charles said.

Which makes one wonder about the many months of due diligence done before Cushion Track was installed.

Are the problems at Santa Anita the fault of Cushion Track, whose president, Paul Harper, was to attend the forum but canceled at the last minute? Or is the mess due to the decision-making process and/or improper maintenance by members of the crew responsible for its day-to-day upkeep?

Perhaps any due diligence should start by trying to answer those questions.

What surface will be in place at Santa Anita when the Oak Tree meeting is held in the fall, including the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in late October?

You can bet representatives of Pro-Ride, Tapeta, and Polytrack are all making their case for being the surface of choice—again. And you can also bet that there are those pushing for another surface—dirt.

Frank Stronach, whose Magna Entertainment owns Santa Anita, is on record as not being a proponent of synthetic surfaces. It is Stronach’s belief, as he has said repeatedly, that spending the same dollars on a traditional dirt surface will provide as safe a surface for horses to run on. Looking at the results of the money Santa Anita has spent installing and repairing Cushion Track, Stronach may just be right.

There was another interesting statement made during the forum, when Dr. Greg Ferraro of the University of California-Davis called for a five-year study on synthetic surfaces to gain information on how they change over time.

Imagine a tire company selling its product to thousands of customers, and then saying in a press release that the tires haven’t been fully tested, but go ahead and drive on them while five years of study is done.

Owners running horses at Santa Anita must feel exactly that way. Run your valuable horses over our surface while we figure out if they are suffering more injuries, bleeding more, need different shoes, etc.

Owners can do a bit of their own due diligence by demanding to see the results of California’s necropsy program, and for a full reporting from track management of injuries occurring over each racetrack and training facility, in the mornings and afternoons, during live race meets and otherwise.

No one is against improved safety measures, and synthetic surfaces exist because they are believed to be safer for horses and humans.

Perhaps more due diligence is needed, but due diligence is only as good as those performing it.

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