By Hank Wesch
Santa Anita is about to become the first California racetrack to abandon the 2006-mandated synthetic surface experiment and return to dirt.
Frank Stronach, chairman of MI Developments that owns the track, made the announcement Aug. 18 an evening meeting of horsemen and racing followers he had called at the Surfside Race Place satellite wagering facility adjacent to the Del Mar track.
A Santa Anita surface that was originally Cushion Track, then a hybrid of that with Pro Ride, then Pro Ride—but failed to drain properly in winter rains under any brand or name—will be replaced soon after the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting ends on Oct. 31. A new dirt surface, estimated by Stronach to cost between $5-6 million, will be installed by the traditional start of the winter/spring meeting on Dec. 26.
"We were mandated to put in synthetics…I never did like it…(but) we learned from it and I hope we never do something like it again," Stronach said in an 18-minute address, followed by a short question-and-answer session, before an estimated 250 horsemen and observers.
"I’m committed to put in a new dirt track."
Stronach made the announcement after what he termed a positive and productive lunch meeting earlier in the day with California Horse Racing Board chairman Keith Brackpool.
Stronach and Brackpool have clashed at board meetings in the past two months over the voiding of the lease for the Oak Tree Racing Association meeting to be held at Santa Anita. Santa Anita eventually agreed to lease the track to Oak Tree for this year. But the current board, significantly changed from the one that mandated synthetics, is known to be amenable to lifting the synthetic rule for tracks that desire.
Stronach’s announcement was greeted by cheers from many in the audience.
A group that includes horsemen and track materials experts have been looking internationally for high-grade dirt for the new surface—Stronach specifically mentioned Argentina—and where the dirt will come from should be known "in a week or two," he said.
Stronach said the intention would be to have the materials on site at the Arcadia track to begin installation as soon as possible in order to complete the job in the "very short window" of time available.
Stronach said that he will send some horses from his extensive stable, now headquartered in the East, to Santa Anita as a gesture of his commitment to the change.
The meeting between Stronach and horsemen came one day before the CHRB’s regular monthly meeting, which will be held at the Surfside Race Place facility adjacent to the track here, one floor below the room where Stronach spoke.
Stronach said he will be in attendance at the CHRB meeting and hoped the positive aspects of his lunch with Brackpool will carry over to the meeting.
Items of greatest interest on the agenda will be:
— A report on the condition of the main track at Santa Anita from a CHRB-ordered inspection nine days ago by Dr. Michael "Mick" Peterson after problems were reported earlier this month.
— Discussion and possible action regarding holding the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting in October there. Stronach relented at the June CHRB meeting and agreed to let Oak Tree remain at Santa Anita this year, but depending on the track condition assessment in the report, the possibility exists of moving it across Los Angeles to Hollywood Park.
— Discussion and possible action regarding future dates at Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields, per requests of Stronach.
At the meeting with horsemen, Stronach reiterated several points he has made at previous CHRB meetings: That it is imperative to racing in California that Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields succeed and that there needs to be a meeting of the minds of all branches of the industry "to make racing exciting again."
And that the current system and business model must be changed, especially regarding the allocation of racing dates, Stronach said.
"I’m a believer in free enterprise, and history has proven over and over again, if the state runs things, it just doesn’t work," Stronach said. "We, as management, would like to have the right to (operate at times) to make the most money."