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All at Santa Anita along for (Pro) ride

Sep 23, 2008 6:58 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden | Pro-Ride gets its first major test on a bona fide race track when Santa Anita makes its debut tomorrow (Sept. 24). The synthetic surface manufactured by an Australian company will receive its baptism under fire for the first time in an official race setting when the Oak Tree Racing Association begins its 40th season at Santa Anita.

Heretofore, Pro-Ride has been used only on training centers, in Australia and in Kentucky. But trainers who have worked their horses over it at Santa Anita since the completion of its installation late last month have expressed satisfaction.

Another principal enthusiast of synthetic tracks is Dr. Rick Arthur, world-renowned expert in the field of veterinary medicine and an advocate for equine health and welfare issues for more than 20 years. He currently serves as equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, which mandated that California’s major tracks install synthetic surfaces by the end of 2007.

Initially, Santa Anita installed Cushion Track, which failed to drain properly after heavy rains early last winter, forcing cancellation of 11 days of racing. Ian Pearse, founder of Pro-Ride, rode to the rescue, recently directing reconstitution of his man-made material at Santa Anita.

"So far, so good," Arthur said. "The trainers are happy, but there’s always a difficult hurdle to jump over. So far, there have been no catastrophic injuries on it, but it’s certainly young and early in its career. But everybody’s happy and horses seem to like it."

Not that adjustments aren’t likely.

"All synthetics need some," Arthur said, "just like dirt surfaces do. How much tweaking Pro-Ride will take, time will tell. It is difficult to prepare both a horse for racing and the track itself before you know how it will affect everything. That will be very interesting.

"Pro-Ride looks very much like dirt; it acts very much like dirt, and if it does everything it’s supposed to take care of, I think we’ll have a great surface for the Breeders’ Cup."

Arthur noted a considerable decrease in lethal accidents. "Interestingly, even after they resurfaced Santa Anita (early in the meet last winter), we did not have a racing fatality on the track in the last four weeks of the meet, and had only one training fatality from March 31, which was about 108 days," Arthur said. "That’s pretty phenomenal in California racing, particularly with a relatively full stable area from March 31 through the middle of July."

While business comes first, Arthur hopes to enjoy Santa Anita’s "Super Saturday" as an enthusiast, when a record six Grade I races will be decided. Each is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Race, with the winner earning the right to start in the championship race corresponding to the Breeders’ Cup division of the Challenge Races known as "Win and You’re In" events.

"As a fan, absolutely I’m excited," Arthur said. "It’s a big day of racing. I think it’s going to offer great wagering possibilities. You’ll get a preview of contenders for the Breeders’ Cup races and it might help you pick a winner."

Like every trainer I’ve spoken with about the track, Bob Hess Jr. favors it. "After the last meet, it was rock-hard," the 43-year-old trainer said. "But since it’s been redone, any foot issues my horses have had have completely disappeared. It’s much kinder, and not horribly slow, either."

Santa Anita track superintendent Richard Tedesco is another who appreciates Pro-Ride, especially its low maintenance.

"The horsemen seem happy with it," he said. "The works are going good, horses are coming back good … Right now, we’re doing great. I don’t have any problems. The track is fine. After training, we harrow the track one time. We move the (starting) gates and put them back in place until the next day. We don’t touch it after that."

The homestretch

If Go Between and Colonel John run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, I’m betting that Garrett Gomez, the regular rider for each horse, opts for Go Between.

• Eight retired Hall of Fame jockeys are scheduled to return to the saddle competitively one final time at Santa Anita on Oct. 18. Angel Cordero Jr., 65; Jacinto Vasquez, 64; Sandy Hawley, 59; Pat Day, 55; Chris McCarron, 53; Jerry Bailey, 51; Gary Stevens, 45; and Julie Krone, 45 are set to compete in a sprint race for California-breds under 126 pounds in a race that will have live pari-mutuels wagering, as authorized by the California Horse Racing Board.

"These guys are taking it seriously," said trainer Howard Zucker, who was with McCarron in Kentucky recently. "They’re meaning to win."