09/24/2006 11:00PM

Artificial surface companies make their pitch


ARCADIA, Calif. - The forecast was for temperatures in the high 80's at Santa Anita on Monday, and it often gets hotter here, especially in the summer, when temperatures can crack 100 degrees. In the winter, however, there is rain to deal with, and many times temperatures dip below freezing overnight.

According to Ron Charles, Santa Anita's president and chief executive officer, those are among the many factors to be considered in selecting an appropriate synthetic surface to replace the Santa Anita main track. The California Horse Racing Board has mandated the state's five major Thoroughbred tracks must install a synthetic surface by the end of 2007.

"Santa Anita is so unique," Charles said as Santa Anita prepared to play host to the Oak Tree meeting, which begins on Wednesday. "We're trying to find out which synthetic surface can withstand that heat. We're at the point where we need to do it, and we should do it, but we don't want to make a mistake where we end up with melting wax in that heat."

According to Charles, four companies - Cushion Track, Polytrack, Tapeta, and Pro-Ride - have made presentations to Santa Anita and its parent company, Magna Entertainment, in recent months, both in California and Toronto. Cushion Track was installed this summer at Hollywood Park. Polytrack is being used at Keeneland, Turfway Park, and Woodbine, and is considered the front-runner to be installed at Del Mar, which hopes to have a synthetic surface before next summer's meet. Tapeta is putting in its synthetic surface at the Fair Hill training center in Maryland, and is among the leading contenders to provide the surface for Golden Gate Fields. Pro-Ride, an Australian outfit, has yet to find a customer in North America, but was making a presentation to Santa Anita officials on Monday afternoon.

"We've got a plot from each provider at Santa Anita," Charles said. "We'll see how well they withstand the heat. We need to look at every one. What might be right for Magna at Golden Gate might not be what we do at Santa Anita."

Based on the way the calendar falls, and the amount of time needed to properly install a new surface, Santa Anita would seem to have a deadline of next summer to make the switch. The five-week Oak Tree meeting and the main winter meeting at Santa Anita - which begins on Dec. 26 and runs until late April - could be the last two meets on the current, conventional surface.

Santa Anita and Hollywood Park alternate providing the off-site stabling each summer when Del Mar is running. This past summer, Hollywood Park was idle, and the track went ahead and installed Cushion Track. Next summer, it is Santa Anita's turn to be closed for training while Del Mar is racing.

"That would seem to be the perfect timing," Charles said.

The new synthetic era in Southern California has met with rave reviews.

"I'm pretty impressed," trainer Richard Mandella said of Hollywood Park's surface. "The horses look like they love it."