09/23/2008 11:00PM

Pro-Ride hits prime time


ARCADIA, Calif. - A year ago, if you dropped the name Ian Pearse into a conversation around the racetrack, a brief pause would ensue, after which someone might guess, "The new James Bond?" or perhaps, "Governor of Alaska?"

Anonymous no more, Pearse is now known as the Aussie who rode to the rescue last winter when Santa Anita's brand-new synthetic surface, the product called Cushion Track, failed to hold up under rainy conditions, resulting in 11 canceled programs.

Pearse, who was among the finalists for the original job, brought in a load of his Pro-Ride surface and patched things up enough to get the meet through to the end. After that experience, it was no surprise when Santa Anita management gave Pearse the mandate to come back and install an unadulterated version of Pro-Ride from scratch, in time for the opening of the Oak Tree meet.

On Wednesday morning, opening day, Pearse had a right to be as nervous as a cat in a room full of terriers, just hours from the official, competitive debut of a 100 percent Pro-Ride surface. Standing near the head of the stretch, easily accessible to trainers passing by, Pearse kept one eye on the track while accepting expressions of "good luck," as if luck had anything to do with it.

"People should be asking me about it tomorrow morning," Pearse said with a grin.

California horsemen are currently suffering from severe PTSD - post traumatic synthetic disorder - brought on by a variety of engineered surfaces that have been dominating the landscape for the past two years. With the debut of Pro-Ride during the Oak Tree meet, there are now four different synthetics in place in California, while such high-traffic training facilities as Pleasanton, Fairplex Park, and San Luis Rey Downs have clung to dirt.

One of the stiffest challenges for Pearse and his Pro-Ride product is overcoming the taste left by problems with other tracks. Issues of maintenance and consistency have plagued both Del Mar's Polytrack and the Cushion Track in place at Hollywood Park. Pearse can do nothing about it, though, except to ask for a fair chance.

To that end, Pearse has placed a high priority on working closely with the Santa Anita track crew, headed by superintendent Richard Tedesco.

"You can't go and put one of these tracks in and expect somebody with 30 years of experience in dirt maintenance to just all of a sudden adapt," Pearse said. "You have to provide a very good, step-by-step maintenance program, with a written manual, and you have to be here to demonstrate how to do it. Without that, you've seen the consequences."

That was as far as Pearse would go down the road of commenting on any competitive products. He preferred to let Pro-Ride speak for itself. The differences, though, are quickly apparent, and not just in the more esoteric areas of polymer binding as opposed to wax. Unlike most of the engineered tracks in use, the chocolate brown Pro-Ride actually looks like an old-fashioned dirt track, at least from a distance.

"If you are trying to shift an industry from dirt to engineered tracks, it makes sense to keep the differences to a minimum," Pearse said. "So let's at least keep it the same color, and try to make it more acceptable to trainers, jockeys, and especially to the gamblers.

"After all, the surface is about 87 percent sand," Pearse added - the rest is fiber and rubber. "What we're trying to do, in essence, is take the best dirt track in the country and improve on that."

Pearse, 45, grew up around horses in his native Melbourne. His sport was reining, a discipline that requires horse and rider to execute a series of intricate moves while changing speeds and trajectory. He began sampling alternative surfaces for his own use - various sands and wood chips - then gradually went commercial.

"Your apprenticeship is in building surfaces for showjumping, and for take-off and landing positions on cross-country fences," Pearse said. "That's where the most stress is, for a showjumping horse, when they land, turn, and accelerate. More pressure on the ground, in fact, than what's going on out there on a racetrack."

The earlier version of Pro-Ride got its break when the Australian government awarded the company a grant for the further development of its polymer binding technology, in its application for horse racing surfaces.

"In the United States, the motivation behind engineered surfaces is animal welfare," Pearse noted. "In Australia it's water conservation. The water situation in Australia is horrendous. There are a lot of tracks now that can't even water their turf courses."

Equipped with his QBE degree ("qualified by experience") and his government backing, Pearse continued research and development of his product in Germany and then in California, at UCLA. After good results for an installation at a major Australian training center, Pearse felt his company was ready to pitch Santa Anita in early 2007 for its main-track renovation, as the change was made from dirt. Cushion Track got the bid. But we know how that turned out.

"Entering into the racing industry, you only get one shot," Pearse said. "Muck up and you're out. But we've covered a lot of ground. We wouldn't take it on if we thought there was any chance of failing. We're not in the risk business."