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A ‘synthetic’ solution, especially in racing, doesn’t always work

Jan 8, 2008 5:14 AM

A few years ago, when thoroughbred racehorses were breaking down north and south in California at an alarming rate, the activist chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, Richard Shapiro, took draconian action. He and his colleagues on the board mandated thoroughbred tracks to install synthetic surfaces, at a cost of $6 million and up, to save the horses.

It was an admirable move, but a bit hasty, and we wrote just that at the time. So to bring it up now, with a major track problem at Santa Anita, is not "I told you so." I said at the time the synthetics were mandated that it was a huge investment for racing without knowing exactly how the tracks would affect racing soundness, and how they would wear under battle conditions.

In Santa Anita’s case, track management chose to install what is called a Cushion Track, as did Hollywood Park. The one in Inglewood has worked. The one in Arcadia has not.

It was designed, it now turns out, to withstand 110-degree weather, and Paul Harper, the technical director of Cushion Track, now admits that move was "in hindsight a mistake, as this has almost certainly compromised the drainage characteristics of the surface." With drainage impaired, the five inches of rain that fell on Santa Anita’s Cushion Track last Friday night had nowhere to go, and the threat of more rain Saturday forced Santa Anita to cancel its big Saturday racing card, which included the $100,000 Santa Ysabel and $150,000 San Pasqual. Track president Ron Charles was summoned to Florida Friday night for an emergency meeting with The Man, track owner Frank Stronach.

Harper thinks he can fix the problem, but says if he can’t remedy it Cushion Track will install a new track at the end of the current meeting, at an estimated cost of another $6 million.

Our trepidation when the synthetics were mandated was caused by living through a similar ordeal.

Forty-five years ago one of the major thoroughbred stables in America was named Tartan, for the Scotch plaid of Scotch tape that made the 3-M company a worldwide economic power.

The man who named the stable was William McKnight, founder of 3-M, and one of the nation’s wealthiest sportsmen at the time. His trainer was Hall of Famer John Nerud, still happily with us today, and Nerud and McKnight decided then, almost half a century ago, that a synthetic surface would cut back on injuries and create uniformity on track surfaces, something sorely needed then and now.

 A small test strip was installed in New York, and then Nerud heard from Delvin Miller, the most influential figure in American harness racing at the time. Miller was a trainer and driver at the very top levels of the game, known wherever trotters raced around the world, and a racetrack owner.

His "The Meadows" near Pittsburgh was a scenic delight.

Miller and a major breeder named Max Hempt, who owned a big farm in Mechanicsburg, near the Pennsylvania state capital of Harrisburg, urged Nerud and McKnight to build a test strip at Hempt’s farm. If it worked, Miller said, he would install a full five-eighths mile track at The Meadows.

McKnight put his best engineers to work immediately on the project, and voila, after months of testing and research, they produced a Tartan track. Miller had it installed, at a cost of millions even then.

It was a revelation. For a while.

Horsemen initially liked its resilient surface, but then chunks of the Tartan track began to break loose under the relentless pounding of scores of horses training over it every morning and racing over it every night.

Things grew worse, and Miller, one of racing’s true realists, knew what needed to be done. He had the Tartan track torn up, and replaced with good old dirt. Another at Windsor Raceway in Ontario met the same fate.

I was at the Hempt farm in Mechanicsburg that day in the early 1960s when the Tartan experimental strip was laid. There were high hopes that the vast research resources of 3-M had produced a minor miracle.

Because it was 3-M, and because it failed, I was cautious and skeptical about the new ventures. Obviously science has come a lifetime in 45 years, but the same conditions that wrecked Tartan kept returning to mind. And now Santa Anita, unquestionably one of the great racetracks of the world, is in temporary trouble.

There are a variety of synthetic tracks now on the market, and one in England has withstood the test of five years of racing. One will rise above the others here. Ron Charles, president of Santa Anita, says his track has spent $11 million so far on the Arcadia racing strip, and has vowed to do whatever necessary to restore ideal racing conditions. We think he will and wish him well, and we expect synthetics to stick together and stick around.