Santa Anita at Hollywood meet looms due to track ills

Jan 8, 2008 1:17 AM

Racing was cancelled at Santa Anita last weekend when heavy rains turned Cushion Track into Mush-on Track.

Some five inches of rain converted Santa Anita’s synthetic surface known as Cushion Track into a quagmire, making it unsafe for man and beast. The track was a blob, a discombobulating mass so thick and sticky, it threatened to pull the shoes off any 1,000-pound horse that risked going on it. The synthetic mix of sand, rubber, wax, fiber, etc., does not drain properly when it’s inundated. When it rains, it’s a witches brew.

Cushion Track was unsafe to race on. Races were cancelled, training was cancelled and hundreds of employees lost irretrievable income. Horses are bred to run, jockeys are born to ride and bettors are bent on gambling, but with no race track to run on, Santa Anita’s Great Race Place came to a standstill.

"I raced here 28 years on the dirt track," said retired Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, "and I think we missed maybe five days all that time."

But in a heartbeat, Mother Nature brought one of racing’s most important race meets to a halt, reducing its distinctive art deco facade to a mere satellite shelter and moving racing in Southern California to uncharted waters.

By late Sunday, it was under consideration: Santa Anita, which opened Dec. 26 and had run only eight days, would race the remainder of its 85 day meet at Hollywood Park, because it’s impractical for Santa Anita to race with a band aid mentality, looking for benevolence from the Man Upstairs and running only when the track is safe, cancelling when it’s not.

The California Horse Racing Board scheduled a special meeting today (Jan. 8) to consider moving some or all of Santa Anita’s remaining dates to Hollywood Park.

"As chairman of the CHRB, I am calling this meeting at the request of Santa Anita to amend their license application to permit them to run races in Inglewood if that becomes necessary, which hopefully it won’t," said Richard Shapiro in a statement issued Saturday. "It will be a telephonic meeting, accessible to the public at specific locations."

Santa Anita cannot be expected to operate at the mercy of the weather.

The track has failed to drain properly since it was installed over the summer. Despite their best efforts, Cushion Track experts have been unable to come up with a solution. The manufacturer, based in England, issued a release last Thursday stating if it was unable to correct the drainage problem in short order, "we will install a new surface at the end of the meet." That’s mighty decent of them, but it won’t bring lost races back to Santa Anita.

A traditional dirt track is sealed in wet weather, but sealing a so-called all-weather surface such as Cushion Track has been ineffective. Sealing is done by pressing down the top layer of the track with a tractor roller, squeezing the water out.

"Santa Anita’s dates should be moved to Hollywood Park as soon as possible," said trainer Barry Abrams. "The CHRB should have Del Mar open its barn area to accommodate horses from Santa Anita, because Hollywood can’t do it. There’s not a stall available there. That means there are 2,000 horses that can’t train who are stuck at Santa Anita. Del Mar’s (synthetic Polytrack) is fine now. Santa Anita should pull out its Cushion Track right now and put in Tapeta (a synthetic surface drawing favorable reviews at Golden Gate).

Other horsemen were less reactionary.

"I don’t have a game plan right now," said Jack Carava, who runs one of California’s most successful claiming operations. "I’m just going to see what happens. This is no worse than the 2 ½ weeks we lost last month when the track was closed in an attempt to correct the drainage issue. It was just as much a hardship then when we had no place to train. At least we know if the weather improves, we can use the main track in a few days."

For trainers with more expensive stock, such options are limited.

"I’ve given it a lot of thought, but where we go, I don’t know," said Eoin Harty, who plans to have Colonel John on the road to the Kentucky Derby. The 45-year-old trainer, who numbers the blue blood thoroughbreds of Darley Stud among his prospects, needs a firm pre-Derby itinerary. That would have included prep races at Santa Anita, but now Harty is weighing alternatives.

"This isn’t something that just popped into my head right now," he said. "I’ve been thinking about for a while and haven’t addressed the issue, but I’ll have to in the next 72 hours. I could go to Hollywood if it can handle the rain, but I’d prefer to stay at Santa Anita."

John Sadler, a Southern California native and one of the hottest trainers on the circuit, was reluctant to rush to judgement.

"I’d stay," when asked if he entertained pulling up stakes. "Proportionately, you see races cancelled during the winter in New York once or twice. Proportionately, we have pretty good weather. This is unfortunate, and everything’s kind of up in the air. We’re looking for answers."

The homestretch:

”¡ Joe Talamo was winless in 28 rides since changing agents, but his former agent, Ron Ebanks, says young Joe has burned too many bridges to return to the fold, should he have any second thoughts. Ebanks currently is flying solo with Tyler Baze.

”¡ Bobby Frankel has trained dozens of great fillies in a Hall of Fame career of more than 40 years, but his best could be Country Star. "As far as 2-year-old fillies are concerned," Frankel told me, "she’s probably the best one I’ve ever had. She’s a little scary. I’ve just got to be lucky with her. Not that I need good luck, but just no bad luck. I’ll take her just the way she is." Frankel will nominate Country Star to the Kentucky Derby, run this year on May 3. She is scheduled to make her 3-year-old debut in the one-mile Las Virgenes Stakes on Feb. 9.

”¡ Tyler Baze and Aaron Gryder will visit the Gold Coast Race Book on Tuesday, Feb. 19 at 9 a.m. Ralph Siraco hosts.