12/03/2010 4:38PM

California prepares to go back to the future


If nothing else, California’s racing community will come away from the first weekend in December certain of something already known widely to be true:

You can’t be fooling with Mother Nature.

Because John Shirreffs and the people involved in Zenyatta’s evolution as a racehorse took their time and waited for her to flower, the sport was rewarded with a star of Hollywood dimensions. Her farewell appearance on Sunday at Hollywood Park will serve merely to underline the hard fact that Thoroughbreds are asked to do too much too soon, and that both the game and the breed would be better served if age 3 could be called the new age 2.

On the same day, across town at Santa Anita Park, a few test horses will be tip-toeing out onto the freshly laid main track, scheduled to be open officially for business on Monday. The new course is 90 percent sand and 10 percent clay, a dramatic declaration that the experiment with synthetics – at least Santa Anita’s version – will be history.

As with most unhappy experiments, even those launched in good faith and high hopes, the history is not pretty. The many fathers who were ready to take credit for success have jumped ship, leaving yet another failure orphaned and homeless. For the better part of the past year, horsemen and industry leaders have been flinging around fingers of blame for what can only be defined as a rush to synthetic technology.

The manufacturers of synthetic tracks have been blamed for marketing an unproven technology. The California Horse Racing Board is blamed for mandating the installation of the “plastic” surfaces without sufficient data. Track managements are blamed for failing to invest in the development and maintenance of safer dirt strips in the first place, while breeders are blamed for producing fragile animals and trainers are blamed for an over-reliance on racing medications.

With so many dots, connection can be a challenge. Still, when it comes to the bedrock reason California’s racetracks took the giant, wobbly step toward synthetics there is only one answer: Blame the dead horses.

Their names have long disappeared in the mists of time – time in this case being a little more than four years. They had names like Chobigne and Bonus Pack, Esroh and Blazing Sunset, 18 of them in all during the grim 2006 season at Del Mar when seven horses were euthanized during just the opening week of the meet. It didn’t matter if they died in training or racing, on the dirt or the on grass. They were dead, and in the wake of Barbaro’s breakdown in the Preakness that spring, the long knives of public opinion were poised at racing’s throat, ready to draw blood.

It’s usually not as simple as that, but maybe in this case it was. At least, that is the way enough of the leaders of the California industry reacted, and the tumultuous, polarizing age of synthetic tracks commenced.

It is neither an exaggeration nor equivocation to suggest synthetic technology never really got a fair shake out west. Consider the scenarios:

Because of environmental fine print, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club was not allowed to install the same recipe of Polytrack that had been tested on the Keeneland training track, Turfway Park, or the Keeneland main track itself. Coupled with coastal California weather conditions diametrically opposite to the Midwest, as well as an intensity of horse traffic unique to Del Mar, Del Mar’s Polytrack has needed serious tweaking each year since its 2007 debut.

Hollywood Park installed Cushion Track, which at the time the new kid on the American block, but the composition of the surface in December 2010 is decidedly different from the original spread, as track superintendent Ron Moore grapples with what he has learned is a high level of maintenance required. The current Hollywood surface, which has had to absorb the brunt of Santa Anita’s unavailability for training, is referred to by people who should know as a hybrid. But not as in Prius.

Then there is Santa Anita. The Cushion Track it bought was not the Cushion Track Hollywood Park bought. Or if it was, somebody switched the labels (“allegedly” should be used here somewhere, since litigation and counter-litigation is still ongoing). It was a rush job, no doubt, just like getting the latest track at Santa Anita has been a rush job. But what does anyone expect other than rush jobs where there is an economic imperative to have racing and training throughout the year?

Anyway, the rains of 2008 came and the drains clogged and Santa Anita’s Cushion Track proved to be a disaster. No “allegedly” required. That is when the ProRide product hit the scene, under triage conditions, and Breeders’ Cups for 2008 and 2009 were saved.

At its best, under ideal conditions and when the wind was just right and the sun at a certain angle, the sorta-kinda ProRide surface that was ripped out of Santa Anita in October was not bad at all. A healthy percentage of horsemen would have risen more strongly to its defense if they could have answered such basic questions as “what if it rains?” or “how about that bad spot over there?” Unfortunately, they could not.

So it is ahead to the past – sealed tracks and cracked feet, burned heels and rundowns, strung-out fields shying from sandy kickback – a past in which the inability to deal with the effects of dirt tracks inspired the desperate dive into synthetics in the first place. As usual it will be up to the horses, always the horses, to survive this latest shift in the terrain.