12/22/2008 12:00AM

New synthetic surface unaffected by hard rains


ARCADIA, Calif. - It rained twice last week at Santa Anita, fairly hard on one of the days, and the rain returned on Monday morning, with more forecast for the middle of this week. Yet with opening day Friday just around the corner, training proceeded uninterrupted.

The synthetic Pro-Ride surface installed over the summer seems to be doing what it is supposed to do, unlike the Cushion Track surface that turned into mush at Santa Anita a year ago.

"This track, the more rain, the better it will be, because it's made for that," trainer Patrick Biancone said Monday morning at Santa Anita. "When they call these tracks 'all-weather,' they mean 'bad weather.' "

Santa Anita had 11 days of racing washed out last year, and while three of those days were subsequently made up, the meet came close to being moved to another facility because the surface was not draining properly. Ian Pearse, the founder of Pro-Ride, rode in and salvaged the meet, mixing in some of his material and thus enabling the track to drain.

Over the summer, Pearse was able to start anew, and the surface received rave reviews for its safety during the Breeders' Cup two months ago.

But the real benefit for Pro-Ride could be at Santa Anita during the winter, when it usually has to deal with a fair amount of wet weather. On its old dirt track, the surface was often sealed to prevent moisture from permeating it. Traffic was restricted many mornings to horses jogging along the outer rail. Thus far, training has gone on, be it wet or dry.

"It's held up. It's held up well," said Michael McCarthy, Todd Pletcher's West Coast assistant trainer, who said the difference from last year was "like night and day."

"I think it's good," said trainer Eoin Harty. "It's been well tested. The secret seems to be, don't do anything. Ian talked to the horsemen about his methods of maintaining the track, which pretty much boiled down to him doing a minimum of maintenance in the morning and the afternoon."

Even trainer Bob Baffert, not exactly the poster child for synthetic surface endorsements, has been satisfied with the way Pro-Ride has performed during the recent wet weather.

"I like it better when there's water on it. When it dries out, it gets a little weird," Baffert said. "We won't know for sure until they run on it. They train on it okay."

Richard Tedesco, the track superintendent at Santa Anita, said the track received about a quarter of an inch of rain Sunday night into Monday, and that more was forecast for Wednesday and Thursday after a clear day Tuesday.

"The track's been really good," Tedesco said. "Last year was terrible. This is heaven."