08/13/2010 4:41PM

Rage Against the Machine


Okay, and apologies for the protracted absence. No, I was not lounging on a beach near Seagrove, or Powerhouse Park. Del Mar is hard work, and not for the lazy. I mean, there’s all those oceanfront gatherings, and just the other night I had to force myself to watch Jack Van Berg do the boogaloo at the Gregson Foundation dinner honoring him and his pal, Ron McAnally, then suffer through an impromptu piano set by Burt Bacharach. Say a little prayer, indeed.

The fault, in fact, falls squarely on my slow absorption of a new blogging software here at DRF central. I reacted as if someone had rearranged all the furniture in the middle of the night, and there I was banging into table edges and umbrella stands for the next two weeks, complaining like a confused and ungrateful child. It seemed too much, though, to have to learn yet again another way in which to impart a few simple thoughts, and the process tripped a memory switch that led me back through the array of mechanical devices that ended here, at the daunting doorstep of Drupal, an “open source content management platform.”  

In the beginning, there was my grandfather’s Underwood #5, circa 1926, with its round, steel-rimmed keys and its carriage that would huff up and down, like the old Dallas Cowboys offensive line, every time an upper case character was called for. Next, and clearly smuggled from my father’s office, came an art-moderne Smith-Corona, in soft teal, followed in short order by a travel Olympia portable (full metal, made it to Europe and back), and then a worthless, plastic Olivetti.

The last manuals I touched on a regular basis were a fleet of pack-mule Royals spread around the old Racing Form offices in L.A. You could beat down a door with one of those and not loose so much as a tab setting. I broke my electronic cherry with the miraculous IBM Selectric, that of the interchangeable type-face balls with a lightning fast return that could have crushed a finger. There was a brief flirtation with the contraption they called the word processor -- an angry, tempermental machine -- and then came the PC, in all its glory. Since then, it’s all been about the programs. The fingers of the left hand still rest on ASDF.

(For those who think such memories are indulgent, like Swan with his friggin’ cookie, take a look at this site and tell me if the tools of the trade, any trade, don’t have at least some  significance -- http://www.fosterkamer.com/post/725759353/famous-writers-and-their-typewriters.)

All this, quite by accident, is a way to address the latest man-made crisis in California racing, which once again has been boxed into a corner by the frustrating technology of synthetic racetracks.

It was bad enough, last weekend, when an early-morning hiccup with Del Mar’s Polytrack mix nearly cost fans a chance to see Zenyatta run. And do not think for a minute that John Shirreffs would not have pulled the plug if track supe Rich Tedesco hadn’t yanked a rabbit out of his harrows. 

No one really knows what to think from week to week, which is no way to run an airline. A trainer that I respect and trust -- I guess that's the same thing -- pulled me up a few days ago in the Del Mar backstretch parking lot to tell me how good the synthetic main track had been that morning. He descibed the surface that greeted his early-rising horses in glowing terms. It was soft. It was even. It was bouncy, like a sponge. Gone were the strips and patches where the various elements -- fiber, wax, rubber and sand -- had failed to hold together. He beamed with the delight of a kid who, after making do with nothing but brown rice and beets, was finally given a bowl of vanilla ice cream.  “Now, if they can only keep it that way all the time," he said. How long, I asked, did the utopian surface last? He sighed. "Yeah, later on it started to break up a little. But only a little.”

Now the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita has been placed in jeopardy -- again, after being rescued from the whims of Frank Stronach -- this time by questions surrounding the condition of the Pro-Ride surface that underwent renovations and repairs earlier this month. Like a blindfolded committee trying to describe an elephant, or build a giraffe, the various, legitimate interests – owners, trainers, jockeys, horseplayers, and management – each seem to have a piece of the puzzle, but nothing close to the total picture.

And so the game dangles, awaiting a study from synthetics expert Mick Peterson, followed by interpretation from the laymen of the California Horse Racing Board, under pressure from all sides, to find out what’s next. The technology of engineered racetracks makes sense, and the goal is to find that consistent, hard-working surface equivalent of those old pack-mule Royals. But so far all we’ve seen is a series of disposable Olivettis.