03/03/2010 12:00AM

Horsemen dismayed by Stronach's stance


ARCADIA, Calif. - Comments by Santa Anita chairman Frank Stronach that he intends to retain the track's troubled synthetic surface were met with disappointment Wednesday by some horsemen who would like the track to return to a dirt surface.

Darrell Vienna, the Southern California vice president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, said his organization wants the existing Pro-Ride surface replaced in the near future.

"The CTT has taken an official position for a return to dirt and anti-synthetic in general," Vienna said Wednesday. "What we all want is the safest surface we can get, whether it's synthetic or dirt. At this point, our members want a new natural dirt surface. The synthetic track has failed us in too many regards."

Santa Anita has had a synthetic surface since August 2007, but it has been plagued by drainage problems in recent years. At the current winter-spring meeting, five days of racing have been lost because of wet weather. In January, Santa Anita president Ron Charles said the track would be replaced after the meeting, perhaps with a dirt surface. On Sunday, Stronach said he did not want to spend the estimated $8 million to $10 million to replace the surface, unless he was allowed to run the track with less regulation from the state. Santa Anita is owned by Magna Entertainment, which filed for bankruptcy in March 2009.

Charles declined to comment Wednesday, referring questions to Dennis Mills, the chief executive of Magna International Developments, the parent company and largest creditor of Magna Entertainment.

Mills echoed some of Stronach's comments from over the weekend, saying the track has already spent extensively on the surface since the California Horse Racing Board mandated that tracks switch to synthetics.

Mills did not rule out replacing the current surface.

"We have to go at this with proper diligence," Mills said.

Stronach, he added, "said we've got to look at all the X-rays, all the MRIs. Let's not do this piecemeal. Let's develop a plan where we have a comprehensive approach.

"As an intelligent person, you don't go out and spend $10 million without research."

Stronach also said he would like to work with horsemen to affect the change he desires. He met with a group of horsemen on Monday to discuss the racetrack.

Vienna said the CTT wants to "uncouple" Stronach's wish for deregulation in racing with the issue of racing surfaces, adding, "I don't want to minimize his concern for deregulation."

Stronach's thoughts caught some leading horsemen off guard.

"The whole thing with the track surface was a surprise," said owner Arnold Zetcher, a member of the Thoroughbred Owners of California's board of directors.

Zetcher said he is most concerned with safety, regardless of the type of surface used at Santa Anita.

"After the Breeders' Cup, the sentiment was to stay" with synthetics, Zetcher said. "Then, the sentiment went to dirt. It shouldn't be about sentiments, it should be what's best for horses."

The issue of the track's inability to handle significant amounts of rain could be a factor this weekend. According to weather.com, there is a 70 percent chance of rain Saturday, the day of the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap.