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The real story behind synthetic surface controversy

Feb 3, 2009 5:04 PM
Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

The controversy over whether synthetic tracks are an improvement from conventional dirt surfaces rages on. It has all but polarized the racing industry, with gunslingers lined up on two sides: Dirts versus the Synthetics.

It’s been that way since former California Horse Racing Board Chairman Richard Shapiro mandated in the interest of safety – that major California tracks install synthetic surfaces by the end of 2007. Shapiro recently resigned in the wake of inconsistencies with the artificial mixtures at Hollywood Park (Cushion Track), Del Mar (Polytrack) and Santa Anita (formerly Cushion Track, now Pro-Ride). By any name, the jury is still out.

Criticism of synthetic surfaces has levied comments ranging from "a rush to judgment" to "a work in progress." Crowds are diminishing at race tracks, but not opinions. Everybody has one, including Dan Hendricks, who has been training in California for more than 20 of his 50 years. Along with winning races, honesty is his strong suit. In a culture captivated by self-serving spins, Dan’s views are at once candid and refreshing. He is not infatuated with political correctness. Howard Cosell would have loved him.

"The synthetics have lived up to about half of what they’ve promised, and even at that, they’re better than what we had," Hendricks said. "You’re still going to have injuries on any track, but since synthetics, it’s been better for both jockeys and horses.

"That alone, along with the reduction of catastrophic injuries, is why they were put in. It wasn’t done on a whim. We got up in front of the CHRB and asked that something be done, and this was the best we could come up with at the time.

"I believe we’re on the right track. It’s just a shame that we don’t have it down to a science and the surfaces haven’t lived up to their billing."

Critics continue to lash vociferously at Shapiro with non-stop vilification for creating the synthetic boondoggle, which doubtless will be his legacy, justified or not. Hendricks takes umbrage with such vacuous thoughts.

"It was owners, breeders, trainers, gamblers and the general public that wanted something done," Hendricks pointed out. "Shapiro had the balls to stand up and get it done on our request, and when I say ‘our,’ I mean the industry. It’s just a shame that mistakes, maintenance problems, weather and whatever else, contributed to the snafu that prevented things from working out properly. But it’s still better."

That might be a tough-sell to guys like Bob Baffert, a pro-dirt man who predicated in an earlier column that California would one day return to traditional dirt surfaces.

Synthetic surfaces were advertised as "all-weather" and "maintenance-free," but that’s proved to be more sizzle than steak. Recent rain did wonders for Pro-Ride at Santa Anita, where Hendricks is based.

"As soon as the water got on it, it improved twofold," he said. "It’s been really good since. They were about to put water on it before the rains, but they waited for the rain. These guys who want to go back to dirt, there’s no dirt out there that’s perfect. You’d still have the problem with weather in California and training on sealed tracks and not training at all."

Meanwhile, bettors should be aware that horses, unlike beggars, can be choosy.

"Horses definitely have a preference for a particular surface," Hendricks said. "Dirt and synthetics are different from each other. When all tracks had only dirt, those surfaces were very similar. There are distinctions between a turf horse, a dirt horse or a mud horse. That’s part of racing and part of handicapping."

Aaron Gryder agrees, and he is a hands-on authority. The 38-year-old jockey has ridden all over the world, from Dubai to Del Mar, on more than 17,000 horses.

"Absolutely there’s a difference in dirt and synthetics," he said. "Some horses get a hold of the dirt better. The surfaces are completely different, but when synthetics are good, I like them. We have to learn how to keep them consistent and how to maintain them. But when they’re good, they’re real good.

"It wouldn’t help me or anybody else if I had an opinion on whether installing synthetics was a rush to judgment. It doesn’t matter. It’s what we have and we need to learn how to use it."

The homestretch

• If Rail Trip was a 3-year-old, he’d be the Future Book favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. But he’s four, so he’ll have to settle for the Santa Anita Handicap on March 7 or the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November. The Kentucky-bred son of Jump Start, trained by Ron Ellis, remained unbeaten in three starts, winning "handily" by 5½ lengths at Santa Anita on Jan. 30. "I haven’t seen a horse win that easy since Spectacular Bid," said a veteran of nearly four decades at the track.

• Did I mention that I hit the Pick Six last week? Well, actually I didn’t hit it, but I called the track and told them I meant to hit it, that I made a mistake and put in the wrong numbers. I told them it wasn’t done intentionally, said I was sorry, and, like Tim Geithner, Obama’s new Treasury Secretary who was given a free pass when he forgot to pay $34,000 in back taxes by simply telling the IRS he made a mistake, and Tom Daschle, the President’s Health and Human Services nominee who forgot to pay $128,000 in taxes, I was forgiven and got the Pick Six money. What a country.

• Good news, bad news: The bad is Starbucks shut down 700 stores. The good is nobody noticed.