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Pro-ride should keep it from raining on cup parade

Sep 9, 2008 6:55 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden | "After rain comes fair weather."–James Howell

Even if the adage uttered by the 17th century essayist doesn’t hold water–no pun intended–Santa Anita expects to be fully vested when it presents the 25th Breeders’ Cup World Championships hosted by the Oak Tree Racing Association on Oct. 24 and 25.

Santa Anita endured a nightmarish meet last winter, due to a flawed synthetic surface installed by Cushion Track that failed to drain properly after heavy rains, costing the Los Angeles Turf Club 11 days of racing.

LATC, a subsidiary of Magna Entertainment, which owns Santa Anita, initiated a multi-million dollar damage lawsuit against Cushion Track last May. Cushion Track was first installed at Santa Anita at a cost of $11 million prior to the Oak Tree meet a year ago. LATC spent an additional $6 million on repairs before selecting Pro-Ride to completely renovate the maligned main track. The project was completed last month and horses were on the track Aug. 31.

One of the first to ride over the new Pro-Ride surface was retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, and he endorsed it following a private test run with almost no media on hand.

"It’s very smooth, very even; it’s like running on a pillow," said the three-time Kentucky Derby winner, who retired from competitive riding nearly three years ago, but still works horses when the mood suits him. "I worked two horses and they were both very, very comfortable. I’m very excited about it. If the track is maintained properly and remains as it is, I can truthfully say it’s the best track I’ve ridden on (he has been on some 300 tracks around the world)."

Ian Pearse, founder and president of Pro-Ride Racing Australia, supervised Santa Anita’s recent overhaul and currently is maintaining a keen observational eye on the track, ready to make adjustments, if necessary.

Whether it’s Pro-Ride, Cushion Track, Polytrack or Tapeta, synthetic surfaces are a work in progress, with safety of horse and rider the foremost reason for their inception.

"I think they absolutely are safer," Stevens said, "although obviously there’s a place for dirt racing. I don’t think every race should be held on synthetic by any means, but they are definitely better for training on. The worst synthetic track is as good as the best dirt track, as far as curtailing injuries.

"Without the rain at Santa Anita last year, we had a pretty good track, although the drainage problems led to other problems. But Ian does his study in the lab instead of in the field. Terry Meyocks, manager of the Jockeys’ Guild, asked me about Santa Anita’s new surface. He said that Carl Nafzger has it on his training track (in Kentucky) and he absolutely loves it."

Stevens, 45, has been offering his expertise on NBC and Horse Racing Television (HRTV) when not acting in advisory capacities to other thoroughbred entities, foremost among them IEAH (International Equine Acquisitions Holdings, Inc.).

"I’ve been working two-hour shifts on HRTV every weekend, getting the good races from Saratoga and across the country, with the exception of Del Mar," he said..

In January, Stevens joined IEAH Stables as Senior Advisor, Racing & Bloodstock Affairs. IEAH’s big horse, of course, is Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown, whose major objective is the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.

"I’ve been to Ireland to get on horses for IEAH, and we wound up buying Plan, who was second in the Secretariat Stakes," said Stevens, who obviously has a vested interest in Big Brown capturing the Classic, whether 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin runs in it or not. At the moment, his connections, headed by Jess Jackson, have not expressed an interest in a Classic showdown with Big Brown. They are pointing next to the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont on Sept. 27.

"There could be motives for both horses (running or not), but I’d like to see it all settled on the race track in the Breeders’ Cup Classic," Stevens said. "That would be the ideal situation. I don’t think Jess has ruled it out at this point."

The homestretch

The top six trainers in career wins at Fairplex Park are all active: Mel Stute (186 going into the current meet); Jerry Fanning (143); Ted West (141); Hector Palma (80); Don Warren (74); and Jeff Mullins (72).

Martin Pedroza, the runaway career leader among jockeys with 519 victories, got off to a record start in quest of his 10th straight title and his 12th overall, winning seven races on opening day, equaling the mark shared by Laffit Pincay Jr. and Victor Espinoza for most wins in one day in California.

David Flores is second to Pedroza in career victories at Fairplex with 324.