02/16/2007 12:00AM

Breakdowns put spotlight back on synthetic surface


ARCADIA, Calif. - A rash of fatal breakdowns at Santa Anita in recent weeks has caused concern about the condition of the main track, and prompted a renewed call for the installation of a synthetic surface.

But track president Ron Charles said a decision has not been made on what type of synthetic track will be used, and said there is a remote possibility that Santa Anita will ask the California Horse Racing Board for a waiver on installing such a surface by the end of the year.

Last year, the racing board mandated that the state's five Thoroughbred tracks install a synthetic surface by the end of 2007 or lose racing dates in 2008.

Charles said that Santa Anita chairman Frank Stronach has expressed concern about problems that have occurred with the Polytrack synthetic surface at Turfway Park in recent weeks. In early February, horsemen at Turfway complained the surface was "balling up" in horses' hooves during racing.

"There have been some recent problems with the synthetic surfaces that appear to be very serious," Charles said. "Frank is concerned about making the right choice. To say we're not putting it in is inaccurate, but we don't want to make a major mistake."

Charles said that it is unlikely the track will ask for a waiver, but it could be requested "if we continued to see major problems" with synthetic surfaces at other venues.

Friday, CHRB chairman Richard Shapiro said the recent breakdowns justify the racing board's mandate for synthetic surfaces. He said he "wouldn't look happily" on a request for more time to install a synthetic surface.

"Do we continue to allow injuries and fatalities to occur?" he said. "I'm sorry if they need more time. I think it's prudent to take a reasonable amount of time, but we need to move forward. I would hope they are using as much energy as possible, and they will comply with the board's mandate. We need to protect the horses."

Through Thursday, the 37th day of the meeting, 11 horses have died as a result of injuries while racing at this meeting, according to statistics compiled by the CHRB. Of those, one death was from an apparent internal injury, according to a CHRB spokesman.

From Feb. 3 through Thursday, 10 days of racing, five horses were euthanized as a result of injuries suffered during races.

In addition, eight horses have died since the Santa Anita meeting began on Dec. 26 while training at Hollywood Park or Santa Anita. Three of the deaths occurred at Hollywood Park, which has a synthetic surface. One death at Hollywood Park was from an apparent internal injury, the CHRB reported.

"Any fatality is one too many," Charles said.

The injuries "have been a topic of considerable discussion with management," according to Ed Halpern, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers.

Halpern called on Stronach to install a synthetic surface this year. He expressed frustration that Stronach's Southern California horses are stabled at Hollywood Park.

"It needs to get done," Halpern said. "For [Stronach] to take the position that he doesn't have his horses trained here and he hasn't fixed the track is unconscionable. I hope the CHRB tells the guy, If you don't put in the track, we'll run the dates at Hollywood Park."

Charles said there are concerns about how synthetic surfaces will handle Santa Anita's warm summer weather. He said consultants for Magna Entertainment have inspected synthetic surfaces in Australia and Dubai.

Earlier this year, he said four types of synthetic surfaces were being considered - Cushion Track, Polytrack, Pro-Ride, and Tapeta.

"I'm not sure anyone can do enough due diligence as to what surface is best for Santa Anita," he said.

Hollywood offers retroactive purse increase

Hollywood Park will distribute a retroactive purse increase of 3 percent later this month to owners whose horses earned prize money in overnight races during the track's fall meeting, which ran from Nov. 1 through Dec. 18.

The increase amounts to a retroactive purse payment of $300,000 and does not include approximately $400,000 being held in reserve for the 2007 fall meeting, according to racing secretary Martin Panza.

The increase will be paid to horsemen in the coming weeks, the track said.

Hollywood Park's 36-day fall meeting had higher than expected business, with average all-sources handle growing 14 percent over a 27-day fall meeting in 2005.

The 2006 fall meeting was the first run in California on a synthetic surface, Cushion Track, which was well-received by horsemen. Average field size grew from 7.4 in 2005 to 8.5 in 2006 - growth that helped handle, Panza said.

"We were up over a horse per race, and the Cushion Track had a lot to do with that," Panza said. "It helped with business."

Panza said the 2007 fall meeting may start with higher overnight purse structure in anticipation of stronger business. "We're hoping we can build the meeting a little bit more," he said. "A couple of years ago, we were paying $229,000 [a day]. It's moving in the right direction."

The track decided to carry over $400,000 in purses to the 2007 fall meeting after consulting with the Thoroughbred Owners of California. Hollywood Park is not offering simulcasting of the lucrative Breeders' Cup program this year, a day that generates about $400,000 in purse money, Panza said.

The Breeders' Cup simulcast will be held during the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting this October.

Infection keeps Belgravia out of Robert Lewis

Belgravia, the winner of the Grade 3 Hollywood Prevue Stakes at Hollywood Park last November, bled significantly after a workout at Hollywood Park on Thursday and has been found to have a lung infection, trainer Patrick Biancone said.

The infection will prevent Belgravia from making a scheduled start in the $200,000 Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita on March 3. Biancone said that "it's too early to say" whether the setback will prevent Belgravia from starting in other Triple Crown preps in March. "He'll need a little time," Biancone said, downplaying the incident.

Belgravia is considered a leading contender for the Kentucky Derby. In Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager last weekend, Belgravia closed at odds of 29-1.

Owned by Michael Tabor and Susan Magnier, Belgravia has won 2 of 3 starts and $117,715. Purchased for $2 million at a 2-year-olds in training sale last February, he was fourth in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity in his most recent start, in December.