01/08/2008 12:00AM

Few options at Santa Anita


ARCADIA, Calif. - It is hard to believe, but the Cushion Track mess at Santa Anita Park actually has folks pining for the bad old days of sealed California dirt tracks.

Fractured legs, tattered heels, cracked and bruised feet - how soon we forget the physical toll taken by wet winters spent pounding on the pavement that used to pass for a racing surface. Synthetic tracks were supposed to end all that, giving the horses and their caretakers more benign practice and playing fields, even when the weather went south. It was a great idea, and it still is.

But after losing three days of sport and nearly a week of serious training on the Santa Anita main track, the racing community was in a helpless dither. Frustration and bitter disappointment were giving way to abject despair, emotions compounded by the ominous fact that there were no assurances the same thing would not happen again the next time seven inches of rain fell during a three-day period.

There was a day when racing (old fart alert!) in Southern California somehow survived on 55-day major meets. There were eight weeks between Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in the spring and 12 weeks between the end of the L.A. County Fair and the beginning of Santa Anita in the fall. Nevermore. The racing economy in most racing states is based on a 12-month model of readily available purse opportunities. As one Santa Anita trainer noted, the $30,000 that his three horses stood a decent chance of winning over the weekend would have paid a month's worth of bills for one of them. The numbers and consequences of the Cushion Track debacle are real.

And so, as every piece of equipment short of an ice cream truck worked the waterlogged Santa Anita main track Monday afternoon, management was faced with only a few distasteful alternatives, in order to reduce what was rapidly becoming an industry-shaking trauma. To wit:

* Stumble forward - Track superintendent Rick Tedesco and his crew moved mountains of material earlier in the week, revealing just how diabolically effective the Cushion Track material had become in retaining - rather than draining - the rainwater of the previous weekend. Still, there was some progress in the drying process. The surface was slowly turning into something that could be used as a racing and training surface.

Still, even before the heavy rains, the surface was under serious criticism from jockeys. The frantic pre-meet renovation of the surface, in an attempt to promote drainage, created painful side effects. Through the first, dry days of the Santa Anita meet, riders noted that the kickback had turned into a lacerating spray of coarse sand and clinging fibers. Even more alarming, pieces of the porous blacktop base had somehow worked their way into the cushion. A rock collection in the jocks' room was growing at a scary rate.

* Leave town - The California Horse Racing Board has given Santa Anita management the green light to use Hollywood Park as an emergency site to operate its racing days as needed, while the Cushion Track crisis is addressed. This is a generous offer on the part of Hollywood Park management and a welcome gesture, especially in a climate that has been less than friendly between the two major Los Angeles-area racing associations since Hollywood Park was purchased by the Bay Meadows Land Co.

There is precedent. In 1949, when the 11-year-old Hollywood Park grandstand burned to the ground just two weeks before the meet was scheduled to open, Santa Anita management leased out its track for 50 spring and summer racing days. With an average daily crowd of 22,292, attendance was off about 5,000 people a day from the usual Hollywood Park numbers, but Santa Anita in those days was a long drive from across town.

The idea of a Santa Anita Handicap run at Hollywood Park has Santa Anita founder Doc Strub spinning in his grave. Never mind what it's doing to current Santa Anita boss Ron Charles. Right now, there's a better chance of a McCain-Romney Republican presidential ticket than there is a crosstown shift in racing - the logistical challenge alone is immense. Still, for the record, it should be noted that the winner of the 1949 Hollywood Gold Cup, presented at Santa Anita, was Nat Goldstone's Solidarity, trained by Carl Roles and ridden by Hall of Famer Ralph Neves. And the money spent just the same.

* Back to the future - Courage has been defined as grace under pressure, and there are some brave souls at Santa Anita trying to fix the terrible mistakes made by Cushion Track in the application of its technology, while laboring in a fishbowl of public unrest.

At times like these, the proven strategy is to find safe harbor in the past. Computer crashed? Research project due? Find a typewriter, a land line, and the old library card, and get back to work. As an infant technology when applied to North American racing, engineered surfaces will be only as good as the people who engineer and stand behind them. Learning curves are expected, but the Santa Anita experience likely has marked the end of racetracks serving as guinea pigs. That is why no one should be surprised if the next sound heard in Arcadia is the dumping of old-fashioned sand, silt, loam, and clay onto the grave of Cushion Track.