02/26/2010 12:00AM

Dirt the clear choice at Santa Anita

Email

NEW YORK - Just when it looked as if Santa Anita was all set to return to dirt racing this fall, Frank Stronach said last week that he may instead propose yet another experimental surface being used at some European show-jumping rings and the racetrack he owns in Austria.

"It's dirt, it's sand, and there's a small amount of fiber in there," Stronach told the Daily News of Los Angeles last Thursday. "Just picture a beach. It's similar to sand on a beach. This new surface, it's basically natural. There's a little bit of new fibers in but in a very controlled way."

Stronach's remarks came as he headed to Santa Anita for the weekend, where he said he planned to meet with horsemen to discuss what surface should be installed after the troublesome and unpopular Pro-Ride track is torn out this summer. With any luck, those horsemen will successfully plead the case that the last thing one of America's premier racetracks needs is one more unproven surface that could again play havoc with the highest levels of American racing.

While opinion remains divided about whether synthetic tracks offer any long-term potential improvements, most of American racing now agrees that the new surfaces were installed prematurely, without sufficient testing for safety and maintenance concerns and with little consideration of how they might affect the performance of horses who for centuries have been bred to run and dirt and grass.

They were advertised as being safer than dirt, but the results have been ambiguous at best: There have been predictable improvements when comparing expensive new installations to neglected old surfaces, but no improvement when compared to the nation's best dirt tracks.

They were said to be weather-proof but had never been used in climates such as California's, where synthetic fibers have literally melted and where rainstorms now close down the game.

They were said to be the new standard for top-class international competition, wildly popular in Europe, and a surface on which both dirt and turf runners would transfer their form. Not a single race in Europe above the Grade 3 level is contested on a synthetic track, and in two Breeders' Cups on Pro-Ride, horses coming off dirt races were 0 for 43.

Maybe this new almost-dirt hybrid Stronach just installed at his Magna Casino track in Ebreichsdorf, Austria, will be different from all the others, but there's no way of knowing that. Austria is not much of a laboratory: In 2008, the last year for which the Jockey Club has collected statistics, there were exactly 62 Thoroughbred races in Austria, and there are 12 days of racing scheduled for Ebreichsdorf this year. Nor is it particularly reassuring that the surface is otherwise being used only for show jumping.

Perhaps stung by all the recent rain-induced cancellations at Santa Anita, Stronach seems most enamored by the new surface's drainage system, which utilizes a system of pipes to water the track from underneath, supposedly allowing for a precise regulation of moisture content. Rain, however, was never a pressing issue in California until the synthetic era. In its first 74 years of racing on dirt, Santa Anita canceled four cards due to rain. In three years of synthetics, it has had to cancel racing 17 times.

Santa Anita puts on only 2 percent of the races run in North America each year, but the choice of its next racing surface goes far beyond that. In addition to its own 13 Grade 1 events, it has hosted the Breeders' Cup five times in 26 years. There's even a faction of the Breeders' Cup board that is lobbying to permanently relocate the event to Santa Anita - and just because that's a patently unfair and unnecessary scheme that would prompt a civil war in the sport doesn't mean it might not happen anyway.

It was two Februaries ago that Cup officials said it was imperative to announce the site of the 2009 races 20 months advance and awarded Santa Anita an unprecedented two straight runnings. Yet no announcement has been made about the 2011 site, even though it is clearly time to run the races again in New York, which has not had a Cup since 2005.

The fairest and most popular thing to do, consistent with the vision of the Breeders' Cup's founders, would be to continue rotating host sites among Belmont, Churchill Downs, Santa Anita, and perhaps a fourth wild-card site. It's simple and it works. Doing otherwise would be as reckless as trying out another unproven racing surface instead of returning to dirt at Santa Anita.