When it comes to safety,synthetic tracks are for real

Nov 27, 2007 1:30 AM

By all counts, synthetic surfaces are a work in progress.

Like critics of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," they say Del Mar’s Polytrack is too slow, Santa Anita’s Cushion Track is too fast, but Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track is just right. They also point out that installation of said surfaces by the end of this year, as mandated by the California Horse Racing Board, was a rush to judgement, perhaps even foolish, like opening a car wash in a rain forest.

But whatever brickbats have been thrown, unanimity has been achieved on one issue: injuries and fatalities to horses have diminished dramatically. Thus the primary objective when California’s major tracks went from traditional dirt surfaces to synthetic ones, has been realized, and in a relatively short period of time, to boot.

"On an injury per start basis, we have made a phenomenal improvement on the number of racing fatalities on the synthetic surfaces," said Dr. Rick Arthur, world-renowned expert in the field of veterinary medicine and advocate for equine health and welfare issues for more than 20 years. Arthur currently is Equine Medical Director for the California Horse Racing Board. "In the fall of 2006, we had zero racing fatalities at Hollywood Park and the numbers were down at the spring/summer meet from the previous year; Del Mar was down dramatically, and there were only two fatalities during racing at Oak Tree," Arthur said. "For those meets overall, we were having probably between 800 and 1,000 starts per fatality, which is a fraction of what it was previously."

Ron Ellis, one of California’s most respected and successful trainers, concurs.

"I’m really impressed with Hollywood Park," said Ellis, who is based year-round at the Inglewood track. "I love the Cushion Track there. Injuries to my horses have really decreased and my horses stay sound and get to the races earlier.

"The Polytrack at Del Mar was a big improvement over the dirt track, but there were issues on how much Polytrack varied from morning to afternoon. In fairness, however, it was the first year of Polytrack and I would think Del Mar will work on improving it so the disparity is not so drastic. It was a really good track in the morning, and it was OK in the afternoon, but there were a lot of horses that didn’t handle it and it was too anti-speed. I think that can be corrected with perhaps more water or less harrowing or whatever. I have to say I really didn’t have any injuries down there, which in the past has usually been at a 50 percent rate."

Santa Anita, which installed Cushion Track in time for the Oak Tree meet that began in late September, followed Hollywood Park and Del Mar in complying with the CHRB decree.

"It’s still too early to get a definitive read on Santa Anita," Ellis said, "but for me, it’s a little too fast. I don’t think horses should be running 1:07 (for six furlongs). But in saying that, a horse that I ran there came out fine, and I wasn’t training there. I was training at Hollywood, but the horses I ran at Santa Anita came out of their races really well. The thing is, it seems to defy logic that they can run in 1:07 and the track not be a little too hard."

All parties, track management foremost among them, agree that synthetic surfaces remain a work in progress on the path to perfection, but no one can dispute they are kinder to and safer for horses.

"For me, overall, the synthetics are a savior for California racing," Ellis said, acknowledging that powerhouse stables from the East such as Todd Pletcher, Richard Dutrow Jr. and Christophe Clement have sent divisions to Southern California with the advent of synthetic surfaces.

And Ellis, a California native who turns 48 next March, welcomes the invaders. His focus is for the overall good of racing in the Golden State.

"I don’t mind the competition," he said, "because to make this whole thing work, we’ve got to have bigger fields. Without the horses, there’s not going to be any competition for anybody."

The homestretch

”¡ Ellis on the current jockey colony in Southern California, replenished with Garrett Gomez, Patrick Valenzuela, Rafael Bejarano and Julien Leparoux: "It’s probably the strongest it’s been in a long time." Ellis says he still keeps his hand in broadcasting for TVG. "Once in a while, when they get into a bind, they call me," he quipped, adding that champion male 2-year-old of 2004 Declan’s Moon recently had throat surgery. "Since he’s come back from a knee operation, he’s had a breathing issue that we can’t seem to correct," Ellis said, "so we finally did surgery, but it’s trying something different because we weren’t going anywhere with anything else we tried."

”¡ On Friday, Todd Pletcher surpassed his record of $26,820,243 in yearly earnings set last year. Going into Saturday, the barn’s total stood at $26,850,873.

”¡ On a trial basis and in an attempt to beef up business, Santa Anita will race Thursday through Monday at its winter/spring meet which begins Dec. 26.

”¡.I’m sympatico to anyone who’s out of work, even envelope-pushing Hollywood writers who earn their keep by offering tasteless, gross-out garbage that has no redeeming social value, but let’s face it: it’s not like these guys are working on a cure for cancer. FCC Chairman Newton Minnow was on the mark in 1961 when he warned that television could become "a vast wasteland." It’s far worse. It’s obstreperous.