Switch to synthetic in works at Santa Anita?

Nov 13, 2019 3:02 AM

Officials from Santa Anita met late last week with officials from Del Mar to discuss the possibility and ramifications of switching Santa Anita back to a synthetic track.

As of Monday evening, there was no formal announcement of any decision. There are plenty of factors that need to be fully understood before making that decision. Those considerations include:

• What did Santa Anita learn from the California Horse Racing Board’s mandate in 2007 requiring all major tracks in the state to convert to synthetic tracks? Santa Anita originally installed Cushion Track, but the poor performance due to extreme variations of temperatures in the San Gabriel Valley led Santa Anita to change to a Pro-Ride surface. Drainage problems with the Pro-Ride surface caused Santa Anita to abandon the synthetic tracks and go back to dirt in 2010.

• Will important Kentucky Derby prep races like the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby become less relevant? The Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland lost much of its luster during the period from 2006 to 2014 when Keeneland employed the synthetic Polytrack. Is it a coincidence that the two recent Santa Anita-based Triple Crown winners — American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018 — appeared after Santa Anita scrapped their synthetic track experiment in 2010? Maybe so, but then again…

• Would the Breeders’ Cup return to Santa Anita if it installs a synthetic track? The Breeders’ Cup was held over a synthetic track at Santa Anita in 2008 and 2009, but officials at Breeders’ Cup are on record as saying they prefer a dirt surface for their main track races. 

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• What would happen to the horse population in Southern California if Santa Anita switches to a synthetic main track and Del Mar’s main track remains a dirt surface? The dirt horse population is perilously low already. Not having a circuit offering similar surfaces could have a severe negative impact on all three major thoroughbred tracks in Southern California.

• If Santa Anita decides to go to a synthetic surface like the Tapeta at sister track Golden Gate Fields, how long would it take to install the surface? When Keeneland returned to dirt from Polytrack in 2015, it took them three months to make the switch. The window would be very tight if Santa Anita decided to make a surface switch after their spring meet ends in late June and completing the project before the horses make their way back from Del Mar over Labor Day weekend.

• How will bettors feel if Santa Anita switches to a synthetic track? There were complaints from horseplayers and wagering handle took a hit during the previous synthetic track experiment. Handle drives purses, and the slots-enriched purses in Kentucky, New York and Arkansas are already far superior to and impacting California. Any purse reductions for the California circuit could be devastating.

Santa Anita is considering other options, including making the current outer dirt main track a turf course and switching the current inner turf course to dirt or synthetic. Santa Anita could also switch their current dirt training track to a synthetic surface to learn more about how temperature and weather affect it prior to changing the main racing surface.

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There is a lot of pressure from politicians and animal rights activists to improve safety. The concerns were elevated during the winter when a spike in equine fatalities caused Santa Anita to halt racing for three weeks in March.

Increased veterinary, medication, and committee review protocols led to reduced catastrophic injuries when Santa Anita resumed racing and carried on through the Los Alamitos summer meet and the Del Mar summer meet.

There were seven catastrophic injuries during the recent Santa Anita autumn meet, however, including Mongolian Groom in the nationally televised Breeders’ Cup Classic. After recording no fatal injuries during racing at Del Mar during the summer, there were two catastrophic injuries at the seaside track during the races on Sunday. 

Before making any quick decisions to appease the outspoken critics, Santa Anita needs to make sure any changes are made with all of California racing — the horses, the horsemen, the owners, the fans, the bettors, and the other major Southern California tracks — in mind. Get this one wrong and the circuit could be in jeopardy.

Lindo Report Play for Gaming Today: Del Mar Thursday, Race 8 — Tropical Terror (No. 10). Gelding from the Jim Cassidy stable broke slowly and got stopped cold when trying to rally entering the far turn in debut. He finished in a rally when finding a clear path in the stretch and may only be a clean trip away from his first career win.

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