Horsemen welcome watered down version of Del Mar

Jul 8, 2008 6:59 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden | Soon there will be three synthetic surfaces at Southern California’s three major tracks. When the brand known as Pro-Ride is installed at Santa Anita in time for the Breeders’ Cup on Oct. 24 and 25, it will be the third mix of wax, fiber, rubber and flotsam at the Golden State’s Big Three of faux facets, joining Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track and Del Mar’s Polytrack.

Del Mar, whose 43-day season runs July 16 through Sept. 3, offers its second campaign under Polytrack, which, in the interest of safety, drew mixed reviews last year, due mainly to ponderously slow times, which resulted in owner Ahmed Zayat moving his horses from the seaside venue to Saratoga. Among them was a $4.6 million son of 2002 two-year-old champion Vindication named Maimonides, trained by Bob Baffert, who went on to break his maiden by 11 lengths at Saratoga last August.

While the majority of horsemen say synthetic surfaces are a panacea for racing’s ills, they are prompt to add it is a work in progress. Del Mar remains in that category.

"I don’t know how Del Mar will play," said David Hofmans, a successful trainer in Southern California for more than three decades who had been one of the most vocal critics of Del Mar’s traditional dirt track, on which horses had a rash of injuries prior to Polytrack.

"I understand that now they are adding water to the Polytrack, which they weren’t able to do last year because of contractual obligations to the manufacturers of Polytrack," Hofmans said. "In addition to water, they say they’ve added another material and they’re very happy with it. We’ll see. Unfortunately, horses don’t get to work on the track in enough time (until the Del Mar Fair vacates the premises). The meet starts July 16 and they want horses to train on it by July 10. Impossible."

Still, Hofmans supports artificial main tracks.

"Synthetic surfaces are the way of the future," he said. "It’s been proven they’re safer for both horse and jockey, and as soon as we learn more about them and get the kinks out, everyone will like it. Pro Ride was very good at Santa Anita the last part of the meeting when they put in what they did (to alleviate serious drainage problems created with the initial installation of Cushion Track). Once Pro-Ride completes the job totally, I don’t think we’ll have any problem with it.

"But they will have to learn how to maintain synthetic surfaces, and that’s where we’re lacking. There has been too much work done on some tracks, and they’re disintegrating because of it. There has been too much equipment on the tracks and they’re not holding up. That’s my personal opinion, anyway, from how my horses have trained over it."

 Vladimir Cerin, a fixture in Southern California for more than 25 years, says even though Del Mar didn’t necessarily present the greatest show on earth in 2007, he wouldn’t change much.

"Racing wasn’t exciting because horses seemed to flog down the lane, but I had the fewest injuries I’ve ever had at Del Mar," said the 53-year-old trainer, whose base of operations is at Santa Anita. "That’s a plus, because the more horses that are injury-free, the more they can race, and you’re going to win more races.

"Pro-Ride is super; it’s fantastic. Right now it’s not at its best because it’s mixed in with Cushion Track, so it hasn’t really had its best chance to work. But I don’t have any horses getting hurt at Santa Anita. I really like it."

Dan Hendricks, who has been training over 20 years, endorses Del Mar unequivocally. "I’ve never trained on a better surface in the morning, and if they tighten it up a little in the afternoon, it will be great," the 49-year-old Los Angeles native said. "They’re talking about maybe watering it, and if they do that, and the track is like it was the last week of the meet, how can we complain?"

Understandably, the jury is still out on Santa Anita’s full-blown version of Pro-Ride.

"We haven’t been on a pure Pro- Ride track," Hendricks said. "All we’ve been on is a track that he (Pro-Ride’s managing director Ian Pearse) band-aided up, but even with the quick fix that he put on it, it was good, so I look forward to it."

The homestretch

Daytona, sixth of seven as the odds-on favorite in the American Handicap on June 28, could make amends at Del Mar. "It just didn’t work out," Hendricks said of the American Handicap. "We ran him back too quick. We’re just going to regroup and head to the Del Mar Handicap (Aug. 23)."

• I see where the Obamas donated $4,600 to Hillary Clinton to defray the millions of dollars she incurred in her ill-fated pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination. It was a benign but insignificant gesture, sort of like trying to sop up the ocean with a sponge.

• News flash: Last Tuesday, for the first time in weeks, at one station in my neck of the woods, the price of gas went down 12 cents (to $4.47). Still, one Southern California trainer, who resides in Orange County, says it costs him $1,400 a month in fuel for his SUV to commute from home to the track.