09/27/2008 11:00PM

Heat may be affecting Pro-Ride


ARCADIA, Calif. - After an initial round of positive reviews from horsemen, enthusiasm over the newly installed Pro-Ride racing surface at Santa Anita has been tempered.

And the theme is familiar - the synthetic track is a good surface on which to train, but afternoon races are a whole different story. Two days into the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, jockey Garrett Gomez said the difference between morning and afternoon is distinct.

"The track is safe [in the afternoon], but it's nothing like we're seeing in the morning," he said. "In the morning, it seems all the horses get across it very well, but in the afternoon, not even half of them are getting across it."

Many trainers are reluctant to be critical of the new surface. "I want stalls here next year," one said. Privately, they said their concerns include perceived looseness and heat of the track. The dark-colored surface absorbs heat, and the 97-degree temperature Thursday made many jockeys uncomfortable, including Rafael Bejarano.

Bejarano's agent, Joe Ferrer, said Bejarano told him, "I have never been so hot in my life."

Pro-Ride founder Ian Pearse said Friday that despite the extreme heat, water would not be applied to the surface. The only change in maintenance on Friday would be "grooming the track" halfway through the card. That was not done Wednesday or Thursday.

"We'll experiment with a few small maintenance techniques, and see what feedback we get," Pearse said. "But we're not altering anything, because it's not broken. I am happy with the stability of the track, and the times. We're trying to set a whole new standard."

Pearse said the track Thursday "was not loose, it was just slightly looser than the day before."

Final times on the main track the first two days were fast. Older maidens on Wednesday ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.73, roughly .60 faster than on a normal California track.

Thursday, the track speed appeared to change throughout the card. The first two races were similar (2-year-old allowance runners went six furlongs in 1:09.67 in race 2). But races 4 and 5 were much faster than expected at the height of the day's heat. In race 4, restricted $12,500 claimers that normally run six furlongs in about 1:10.80 were timed in 1:09.82.

Later, in races 6-8, the track slowed even while temperatures stayed in the high 90s. "The air temperature stayed the same, but the track temperature dropped dramatically," Pearse said. The Pro-Ride mixture is classified, and Pearse declined to reveal how it adapts to heat.

The fluctuation in track speed is a concern to handicappers who rely on speed figures to analyze performance and predict future efforts. That was a key criticism of the Polytrack surface at Del Mar, which was watered frequently this summer and changed speeds.

The first two days of racing at Oak Tree included 13 races on the main track. While the small sample precludes reasonable determination of bias, horses have not been winning by the same margins they did on dirt. And while speed is not an attribute, it is not a liability, either. In sprints at 6 1/2 furlongs or less, 3 of the 5 races were won gate to wire; closers won 3 of 4 at seven furlongs. The three route races were won by closers; two were logical favorites or second favorites.

In race 7 on Thursday, the Bruce Headley-trained Silver Swallow was pulled up on the first turn but walked off the track. Headley did not blame the track.

"She was fine before the race, and she is fine this morning [Friday], so draw your own conclusion," he said.

Gomez rode two main-track winners on Thursday, but Wednesday in race 7 his heavily favored Vulcan failed to reproduce the top form he had showed at Del Mar.

"He bobbled the whole way around there," Gomez said.

"The horses that are getting across it are struggling less than others," the jockey said. "It seems that you have a couple in each race that travel a lot better than the others. As long as they're at a [constant] pace, they're okay. But squeeze them to make them go faster, and they fall apart on you."