Santa Anita Track Nearly Ready to Test

With the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita less than 10 weeks away, track president Ron Charles told the California Horse Racing Board that its new synthetic racing surface is nearly ready for the acid test.

"The track's coming along well," Charles told the board during its regular monthly meeting Aug. 19 at Del Mar's Surfside Race Place satellite wagering facility. "We hope to have horses on it by the end of next week (Aug. 29)."

While some horsemen in parts of the U.S. have expressed reservations about bringing their horses to Santa Anita to run on an unproven surface in the Breeders' Cup, Charles noted, "The interest from Europe has never been greater because the trainers there will have an option between running on synthetic track, which they are used to, and grass."

This will be the first Breeders' Cup to employ a synthetic racing surface and Santa Anita, as well as the CHRB, which mandated that its major tracks switch from traditional dirt surfaces, are under pressure to make sure things go well this year. The two-day racing festival is scheduled to return to Santa Anita in 2009.

The racing surface originally installed at Santa Anita, Cushion Track, has undergone virtually complete replacement, with Pro-Ride Racing Australia putting in the new composite material and overhauling the drainage system.

So far, not only is the drainage working properly, but the new surface "just feels fantastic," Charles said.

He complained that in addition to problems with the original Cushion Track mixture, the company that installed it had used rock below the drainage base that failed to allow water to permeate. The problems with the surface became acute in January and February when heavy rain forced Santa Anita to close the track and lose eight days of racing.

The operator of Santa Anita, the Los Angeles Turf Club, has sued Cushion Track USA and affiliates in California federal court over the track's failure.

"I couldn't be more optimistic," Charles said of the new surface. "Time will tell."

Breeders' Cup preparations were among the CHRB's main considerations this month. In separate votes to accommodate European participation, the board unanimously approved requests to allow microchip identification of foreign horses, human attendants without lead ponies to escort runners to the starting gate, and the use of the shorter "flat whip" employed by jockeys overseas.

However, a request to issue a special 120-day license to owners for one-third the usual fee died for lack of a motion. Commissioners balked at giving special treatment to what board vice president John Harris referred to as "the wealthiest owners in the world." California licenses are for three years and cost $150. By buying the full license, it was noted, out-of-state owners would also be in compliance for next year's Breeders' Cup.

Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director, said that microchip identification would not cause a problem for local horse identifiers, who will have the proper reader equipment. North American Thoroughbreds are required to have lip tattoo identification, but that is not the case in Europe, he explained.

In addition to being the first Breeders' Cup contested on synthetic surface, this year's event will also be the first where anabolic steroids are prohibited. After the meeting, Arthur said that the CHRB, through Dr. Scott Stanley at the University of California-Davis' Ken Maddy Laboratory, will offer pre-testing of horses being considered for Cup participation.

The European Flat Whip was approved for all jockeys in the Breeders' Cup, joining the two already in use in California --  the standard specification variety and the so-called "popper" whip, which is made of softer material and is padded at the tip.

In other action, the board reallocated racing dates at Magna Entertainment-owned Golden Gate Fields from Sept. 17 to Dec. 21 to the Los Angeles Turf Club, removing them from the Pacific Racing Association. The action was necessary because Pacific Racing had been allocated 26 weeks of racing in the northern zone, in excess of state law limiting a race association from conducting more than 22 weeks, according to LATC general counsel Frank De Marco Jr.

A bill pending in the state legislature would increase the limit to 35 weeks beginning in 2009, he said.

The board also approved a rule amendment to allow a horse owner whose license has expired to renew it even if the owner does not have a registered racehorse at the time of the renewal. Drew Couto, president of the 10,000-member Thoroughbred Owners of California, objected to the amendment, arguing that such a classification already exists -- the "open claim license."

A 45-day public comment period was approved for a new rule that would allow the creation of 15 mini-statellite wagering facilities around the state as provided for in legislation passed last year.

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