01/11/2008 12:00AM

Lab tests Cushion Track mix

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Ian Pearse, the synthetic-surface expert brought in from Australia by Santa Anita this week to help solve its Cushion Track riddle, on Friday described the progress being made as "encouraging," and hinted that he and scientists at the University of Southern California may be able to come up with a solution to the track's drainage problems and prevent the replacement of the main track.

Santa Anita flew in Pearse from Melbourne, but much of the critical work is being done far closer to the racetrack. About 15 miles from Santa Anita, in downtown Los Angeles, the civil engineering department at USC is testing different mixtures of Cushion Track in an attempt to get it to drain properly.

"They're trying to get water to run through it," said Santa Anita's president, Ron Charles.

Santa Anita's version of Cushion Track did not drain properly earlier this month during heavy rain and caused the cancellation of racing for three days, from Jan. 5-7. Charles is weighing several options on how to get through the meet, and as recently as Wednesday told a group of trainers and owners that Cushion Track was likely to be replaced this coming week by a dirt track. But dry weather in recent days has allowed more time to make a decision.

"At this stage, we're in the lab doing further testing," said Pearse, who is the founder of Pro-Ride, another synthetic-surface manufacturer.

Unlike Cushion Track, Polytrack, and Tapeta, which use wax to bind synthetic materials in their surfaces, Pro-Ride uses a polymer that was developed through a grant from the Australian government. Pearse said he brought some of his binders with him and delivered them to the engineers at USC for use in their Cushion Track experiments.

"The binders are polymer-based," Pearse said. "We used wax many, many years ago, but we noticed issues with it. With the funding from the Australian federal government, we had a program that came up with more advanced binders."

Cushion Track is a mixture of sand, rubber, and natural and synthetic fibers, all coated in wax.

Cushion Track officials have conceded that the mix of sand and wax used in Santa Anita's surface was "a mistake" and is the cause of the surface not draining properly.

Pearse got to Los Angeles on Thursday morning. He said he was contacted by Santa Anita officials a few days before that about coming to California, but had been in touch with Santa Anita for several weeks in trying to figure out why the Cushion Track would not drain.

"They sent me some material a little while ago for basic testing," Pearse said.

Pro-Ride was one of four finalists considered by Santa Anita before it installed Cushion Track last summer. Cushion Track had been put in one year earlier at Hollywood Park, and had received largely favorable reviews.

Santa Anita put in a synthetic surface because of a 2006 mandate from the California Horse Racing Board requiring all major Thoroughbred tracks in the state to do so by the end of 2007.

Pro-Ride has been installed at several training centers and at training tracks adjacent to racecourses, but has not been used for racing. That is because Pro-Ride "has intentionally moved forward one step at a time," according to Pro-Ride's Jeff Richardson, who responded to an e-mail seeking comment on the company.

"The technical development of the product has been paramount, and we have consciously chosen not to rush into market with very specific needs until we were 100 percent certain we could surpass expectation," Richardson wrote.

"While Ian has spoken with racing facilities in the past, he has been careful in his promises. Hence, up until this time, we have not installed any surfaces that are used for racing.

"Having said that, our patient approach is now proving sound, as Ian's learnings and his understanding of synthetic surfaces is unsurpassed and we are, of course, very excited at the prospect of assisting Santa Anita in any way possible."