12/07/2007 12:00AM

Cushion Track problems staggering

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - First of all, let it be said that the turf course at Santa Anita Park looks marvelous. Just marvelous. The winter rye has emerged a vibrant emerald green, creating a heavenly lawn, more than ready for opening day, Dec. 26, when the first of 34 Santa Anita stakes events is scheduled for the grass.

The health of the turf course stands in stark contrast to the nightmare that surrounds it. "Nightmare" is the word Santa Anita president Ron Charles uses to describe the trauma wrought by the failure of the three-month old Cushion Track synthetic surface to perform the simple task of draining water, and nightmares are what Charles has been having since the decision was made to peel back the surface in an attempt to solve the problem.

Logistically, no California racetrack has ever been faced with such a daunting task. Sure, there have been any number of 11th-hour construction projects hanging, with paint still wet as customers queue. And who can forget the newly-minted Santa Anita tote system that backfired on opening day of the 1992-93 meet, sending patrons home in droves? Compared to the current challenge, those issues were trifling inconveniences. As this was written, there were 19 days before one of the world's most prestigious Thoroughbred meets was scheduled to begin, with 2,000 horses poised to participate and no main track on which to train. Imagine an airport with runways ripped up and littered with workmen, while planes circle overhead.

"It really isn't fair that Santa Anita gets hit with this, but that's life," Charles said Friday morning. "You can't run from it. You've got to roll up your sleeves and try to get it right."

Santa Anita management asked horsemen for a week to complete the renovation. On Wednesday afternoon, the first full day of the project, it was clear that a miracle would be required to meet such a deadline.

The process is agonizing. Graders come through first, removing the seven inches of Cushion Track material from the inside half of the oval without scraping or gouging the asphalt base. In order to eliminate the buildup of fine sand that had clogged the porous asphalt and inhibited drainage, a squad of machinery is being deployed that includes pressure hoses, sweepers, and vacuums, almost all of it hand-operated by men on foot.

Once the asphalt base is restored to its original condition, the Cushion Track material will be replaced, but not before it has been significantly altered with coarser sand and additional amounts of fiber and rubber. More wax treatment also may be required.

"After that, we'll do the same thing to the outside of the track, piling up the surface and cleaning the asphalt," Charles said. "We could need as much as a second week, although I think it would be more like three days. But to try and rush this for the sake of a few days would be the biggest mistake we could make."

For $9 million, Santa Anita management had a right to expect that the job would be done properly the first time around. The sand supplied in Cushion Track's mixture appears to be at fault, and fingers are being pointed as litigation looms. For his part, Charles prefers to get the track in working order before any lawyers might be unleashed.

"For the first time today, we have the confidence that we are going to find the right formula that will get this track to drain," Charles said. "We're doing now what should have been done originally - testing for drainage, and keeping the right percentage of ingredients to maintain that drainage, and the safety of the surface."

Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, led the charge in mandating that all major California tracks install synthetic surfaces. His faith in engineered surfaces has not wavered. However, he was surprised to see Philip Bond, director of international marketing for Equestrian Services, the firm that supplies Cushion Track, at this week's racing industry symposium in Tucson, Ariz., instead of on the scene of the Santa Anita crisis.

"Rather than being at the symposium trying to sell another track, they should worry about the ones they've sold," Shapiro said. "This is Santa Anita, for god's sakes, and it jeopardizes the welfare of California racing. I was dismayed at the lack of urgency being displayed by Cushion Track, and frankly I got very annoyed with them."

Annoyed enough to call for an appearance by representatives of Cushion Track, as well as Santa Anita, at next Friday's racing board meeting in Arcadia.

"Cushion Track is not a licensed vendor, but they are a vendor to a licensee," Shapiro said. "They need to make sure they get it right. Anyone who thinks they're going to sell it, then wash their hands of it - that ain't gonna fly."

In the meantime, Southern California trainers and owners are coping, and hoping for a happy ending.

"They don't like it, and it certainly messes up training schedules," said Ed Halpern, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers. "People just want to know that something is being done, and they're doing it as expeditiously as possible. The training track is fine on an interim basis, and we're lucky to have it, because this other deal is a real mess."

But hey, how about that turf course?