Optimism at SA for new surface

Sep 18, 2007 5:34 AM

September 26, 2007, will be a historic day at Santa Anita. For the first time in the track’s storied 71 years, thoroughbreds will compete over a synthetic surface known as Cushion Track.

It’s the same brand Hollywood Park installed earlier, but varies from the Polytrack for which Del Mar opted. In each instance, however, Southern California’s three major tracks complied with the mandate of the California Horse Racing Board which decreed that in order to be issued dates, said tracks must have artificial main surfaces by the end of 2007.

Safety of horse and rider was the fundamental reason, and at this early date, that goal has been attained, but not without criticism. Dissenters found it difficult to accept the ponderously slow running times at Del Mar. The CHRB was accused in some quarters of a rush to judgement in abandoning traditional dirt surfaces. Doubters maintain the jury is still out, but that won’t change the fact that synthetic surfaces are racing’s new wave, and that’s just fine with Doug O’Neill.

"It might be too early to say if Santa Anita’s Cushion Track is different from Hollywood’s, but it looks fantastic," said O’Neill, Santa Anita’s leading trainer the past three seasons and the leader at Oak Tree in 2003 and 2006. Oak Tree begins a 31-day meet at Santa Anita Sept. 26 that runs through Nov. 4. "All my horses are getting over Santa Anita’s new track really well," said O’Neill, who is headquartered at Hollywood. "It’s so quiet, you can’t hear them gallop by. As much as I love Hollywood Park, Santa Anita is every bit as good, if not better.

"Santa Anita had the luxury of observing what transpired at Hollywood and Del Mar after those tracks put in their synthetic surfaces and was able to benefit by tweaking certain things one way or the other. Santa Anita is going at it the right way, and with (Santa Anita President) Ron Charles not only being a top executive but also a horse owner, he’s definitely paid attention to detail. I think he has a state of the art facility."

O’Neill, a 39-year-old native of Dearborn, Michigan, attributes the snail-like times at Del Mar to dramatic weather changes from morning to afternoon that are indigenous to the seaside track.

"Times were slow on warm days in the afternoon," O’Neill said, "but I think (Del Mar President) Joe Harper and the boys down there did a good job in not experimenting during the meet and just leaving it alone, because it was a safe surface. They didn’t water it and harden it in an effort to have faster times.

"But Cushion Track is different from Polytrack. It’s similar but a lot more firm, so I’m looking forward to this meet. I think it’s going to be a great Oak Tree, and again, I think all these tracks, as we’re using synthetic surfaces more, will learn more and keep them as consistent in the afternoons as they do in the mornings."

O’Neill dismissed judgments from detractors who say patience should have been exercised before the mandate was implemented.

"You could be running on orthopedic mattresses and you’d have people complaining," O’Neill said. "That’s the nature of any business. You’re going to have people who want to bash certain things, but I think what (CHRB Chairman) Richard Shapiro has done for California racing has been brilliant. He’s put the horse first. People will come back to the races if they can go and not worry about a handful of horses being vanned off the track every day. I don’t know the exact numbers, but we’ve already seen field sizes increase, and it sure looks like Del Mar and Hollywood had a lot better meets than before."

Meanwhile, chances of O’Neill’s marquee horse, Lava Man, running on Breeders’ Cup day at Monmouth Park on Oct. 27, seem tenuous.

"The two possibilities for his next race are the Goodwood (Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on the Cushion Track on Sept. 29) or the Oak Tree Mile (Oct. 7 on turf)," O’Neill said. "He’s versatile enough that we can consider turf or Cushion for him, but I think he’ll have to really run huge in one of those two races for the Breeders’ Cup to even be an option. But as we speak, he’s doing great."

The homestretch

”¡ Addressing a headline in the Sept. 14 Los Angeles Times that said Santa Anita "May Be Sold," track President Ron Charles said it was "so inaccurate" and "I can assure you Santa Anita is not for sale . . . the best-earning track and the crown jewel for Magna is Santa Anita."

”¡ O’Neill reports that Lava Man’s groom, Noa Garcia, who lost his left arm when rear-ended by a drunk driver on July 23, is making progress. "He’s doing well," O’Neill said of the 39-year-old Guatemala native. "He stops by the barn a couple days a week and hangs out and socializes. His spirits are definitely improving."

”¡ O’Neill, leading rider Michael Baze and affable New York transplant Richard Migliore will answer questions and sign autographs Monday, Oct. 15 at 9 a.m., in the Orleans Race and Sports book.

”¡ Don’t overlook Fairplex horses at Oak Tree.

”¡ News You Can Bet On: David Wright will become the first New York Met to be named MVP.

”¡ I wouldn’t say Donovan McNabb stunk out the place in the Eagles’ pathetic 16-13 opening game loss to the Packers, but somewhere, Terrell Owens must be laughing.

”¡ At a press conference, Las Vegas police Captain James Dillon said armed robbery suspect O.J. Simpson was staying at "a local Las Vegas hotel." Is there any other kind?