New Binder Could Save Santa Anita

Adding more material with a new liquid binder may allow Santa Anita to drain again.

Synthetic material that includes a liquid binder will be added to Santa Anita’s main surface in an effort to improve drainage, officials with the California track announced Jan. 15. After several days of testing the material manufactured by Pro-Ride Racing of Australia, it is believed the new material will significantly improve the current surface.

"We will put the material into our existing track and believe that it will get us back to what we expected with the original Cushion Track," said Santa Anita president Ron Charles. "We expect the material will take 10 to 12 days to produce, and we will add it at the first opportunity."

Santa Anita originally considered replacing the Cushion Track with a traditional dirt surface because it has not drained properly when it rains. The California Horse Racing Board has scheduled a special meeting Jan. 17 to consider granting Santa Anita a waiver to do so. That might have required the track to close for eight to 10 days, and the high-quality sandy loam Santa Anita wanted to install was not readily available.

Charles and his team meanwhile continued to consult with scientists and engineers in an effort to improve the drainage. They had been particularly encouraged by the work done by Ian Pearse of Pro-Ride Racing and Dr. Jean-Pierre Bardet, chairman and professor of the University of Southern California civil and environmental engineering department. Pearse and Bardet had visited the track the previous weekend to conduct further tests after consulting with each other at USC.

"We’ve looked closely at the environmental conditions here at Santa Anita," Pearse said. "I believe we have the solution to the drainage problem." His testing in the lab has demonstrated that the existing track required a binder to encapsulate the fine silt contained in the sand. The binder promotes stability and will permit the drainage of rainwater through the seven inches of synthetic surface that lies on a porous asphalt base.

Charles said that adding the material should take three or four days.

"Obviously, we will try to minimize lost days," he said. "We might lose a couple of days, and we’re looking into the possibility of running all-turf cards on those days as one option. After we get the material added, we’ll discuss any makeup days, etc."

Santa Anita lost three days of racing, Jan. 5-7, after rain hit Southern California and the Cushion Track had trouble draining through its asphalt base. Santa Anita had closed the track in December for a renovation project designed to fix the problem, but the water still didn’t get through.

The new material is blacker in color than the light tan of the Cushion Track. Charles demonstrated how it worked by putting a handful in a bowl of water. Tipping the bowl, he showed that the water passed through without the material turning muddy. When he poured water onto some of it sitting on newspapers, it drained through, soaking the papers.

Charles said that Santa Anita officials plan to monitor how the new material works throughout the meeting, which will end April 20, and then evaluate the situation. He could not speculate on whether this would be a permanent solution.

Charles discussed Santa Anita’s decision with all horsemen’s groups.

"Trainers, owners, and jockeys have witnessed numerous demonstrations over the past three days, and all parties have been overwhelmingly supportive," he said.

Indeed, the trainers supported track management to the extent of sending out work details after training hours Jan. 15 to help pick up rocks in the existing surface. Since the track reopened Jan. 10, jockeys had complained of rocks in the surface. Some of the riders had designed plastic safety visors to wear during the races.

Trainers actually walking the track with some of their employees included Richard Mandella, John Sadler, Patrick Gallagher, Howard Zucker, and Herb Bacorn. Mandella brought out 15 to 20 people and had them line up across the track to cover as much area as possible.

"They said there were rocks out here, so I said let’s get the crew out here and ‘git ’er done,’ " said Mandella, using the signature line of comic Larry the Cable Guy.

George Haines, Santa Anita’s vice president and general manager, also walked the track, as did Ed Halpern, executive director of California Thoroughbred Trainers, and Mary Forney, director of operations for the Thoroughbred Owners of California. Haines had Santa Anita employees driving Gators full of pizzas, snacks, and drinks out to the people as they worked.

Though reports said that fist-sized rocks had already been found, the crews for the most part picked up quarter-sized pieces of what appeared to be asphalt. Most helpers had a smattering of such pieces rattling around the bottom of the white feed-type buckets they were using.