11/28/2014 3:43PM

Hovdey: Synthetic experiment ends a noble failure


Sunday’s ninth race at Del Mar marks the bitter end of the synthetic-track era in Southern California. Will the last horse out the door please sweep up?

What began in 2006 as a grand experiment designed to reverse an unacceptable trend in racing and training fatalities will fold quietly in a 6 1/2-furlong maiden race for 2-year-olds worth a purse of $56,000. A full field will run.

With Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track and Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surfaces long gone, and now Del Mar’s Polytrack heading for the heap, it is probably best to just turn the page and pray for safe and sane maintenance of the dirt tracks now being used at the various racing and training sites. Those sites currently include Santa Anita, Los Alamitos, San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, and Fairplex Park, although Fairplex will be available only for a few more months. Del Mar’s dirt should come on line by next spring. Up in Northern California, Golden Gate Fields is still racing on a Tapeta synthetic surface.

The good news is that Dennis Moore, who lorded over Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track surface before the place shut down, has been in charge of the dirt tracks at Santa Anita, Los Alamitos, and San Luis Rey Downs. Moore also was instrumental in securing the river-bottom material that will be used in the new Del Mar main track.

In the meantime, there are sample containers of Del Mar’s Polytrack at local tack shops with a sign begging people to bring a bucket and take as much as you want, beginning next week. This would be the definition of going out with a whimper.

Synthetics never really had a chance in Southern California. For starters, they were essentially an unfunded mandate by the California Horse Racing Board, which voted – with approval from horsemen’s groups – to require tracks to convert by 2008. The mandate came without further direction, which left the market open to competing synthetic-track companies, none of them with a long-term track record in U.S. climates under U.S. racing conditions. Craig Fravel, then Del Mar executive vice president and an early proponent of synthetics, noted, “The technology is still more art than science.”

More like finger painting. At various points along the agonizing learning curve, there were ripples and tears in the subsurface layer at Hollywood Park, a complaint of toxic contamination, and severe drainage problems at Santa Anita that in one case threatened a presentation of the Breeders’ Cup.

Del Mar’s experience with Polytrack went something like this:

◗ Summer 2006 – A total of 19 horses are euthanized during the Del Mar meet, freaking out the local media and pushing even industry writers to deploy screaming references to the dirt track as a “killing field.” The dirt track, without hesitation, is blamed.

◗ Summer 2007 – Del Mar unveils its new Polytrack surface with a media event inviting one and all to walk the track and dig in a toe. I allow my daughter, not yet 2, to wallow around in the waxy, light gray material like it’s a high-tech sandbox, which essentially it is. I forget if I told her to immediately wash her hands.

Fatalities decline to nine for the meet. Student Council wins the Pacific Classic with a 1 1/4-mile time of 2:07.29 on a sunny day. Owner Ahmed Zayat pulls his 27 horses from Del Mar because the track is too slow.

◗ Summer 2008 – The Polytrack is watered and tightened, and times are accordingly faster. The six-furlong Bing Crosby, a Grade 1 event, is won by Street Boss in 1:08.67, compared with the 1:11.06 it took In Summation to win the same race in 2007.

◗ Summer 2009 – Another adjustment, as maintenance crews struggle with the difference between the amount of moisture required to keep the Polytrack consistent from morning to afternoon. There is not enough data to prove that synthetic surfaces like Del Mar’s are safer, and there are 12 fatalities related to the main track during the season. Rick Arthur, the California Horse Racing Board’s equine medical director, warns, “To think that this is only a racetrack problem and that we will solve the problem by fixing the racetracks is terribly naive.”

◗ Summer 2010 – Controversial track superintendent Steve Wood is out, and Rich Tedesco is in. Tedesco, who supervised an emergency triage of Santa Anita’s synthetic surface, is handed a thankless task after the frustrating fine-tuning since the Del Mar Polytrack installation. Zenyatta, who actually refuses to train one morning, ships to Hollywood Park and then back to Del Mar for the Clement Hirsch, which she wins by a head over the unheralded Rinterval.

◗ Summer 2011 – Tedesco, still practicing an art form, was able to narrow the variant between morning and afternoon. The six main-track racing-training fatalities are comparable to 2010, when there were five. Tedesco, however, concedes that the subsurface lining of the main track is beginning to deteriorate and is counting the days when a major renovation – or replacement – will be necessary.

Tedesco was able to hold off that expensive retreatment of the Polytrack surface until the spring of 2014, but by that time, it had been announced that Del Mar would be returning to a dirt surface following its first fall meet later in the year. Santa Anita already had gone back to dirt in 2010, Hollywood was closed, and the expanded dirt surface at Los Alamitos was up and running.

“We can’t go it alone,” said Joe Harper, Del Mar president. And he was right. In the end, it was a hell of a seven-year ordeal, over a road paved with waxed sand, little bits of rubber, recycled carpet fibers ... and good intentions.