01/10/2008 12:00AM

Racing resumes as concern lingers

Benoit & Associates
After three days lost to drainage problems, Santa Anita gets back in action on Thursday.

ARCADIA, Calif. - After several dry days, racing resumed at Santa Anita on Thursday on its embattled Cushion Track surface, but track management, which has brought in a synthetic-track expert from Australia, postponed a decision on how to proceed for the rest of the meet.

The dry weather, which is expected to last until at least the middle of next week, has allowed Santa Anita management several more days to decide whether to race on Cushion Track for the rest of the meet or replace it with a dirt or sand surface. The meet ends April 20.

Ron Charles, Santa Anita's president, had promised a decision by Thursday. But on Thursday, Charles was still weighing options.

"We just need more time," Charles said. "This is a major, major decision.

"Potentially, we're going to take the entire Cushion Track out and replace it with another surface. If we're going to put dirt in, we have to make sure we have a very high-quality surface."

In the meantime, Charles brought Ian Pearse, the founder of Pro-Ride, another synthetic surface company, in from Australia to consult on the ongoing problems at Santa Anita. Pro-Ride, along with Cushion Track, Polytrack, and Tapeta, was one of the four finalists last year when Santa Anita was determining what synthetic surface to install. Santa Anita went with Cushion Track, hoping to get the same surface that had been well received across town at Hollywood Park after it was installed there in the fall of 2006.

The Cushion Track surfaces at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park use sand, rubber, and natural and synthetic fibers, which are coated in wax, but the sand and wax used at Santa Anita differs from that at Hollywood Park. Cushion Track officials have conceded that the mixture was a mistake, and led to the problems with drainage.

Pro-Ride, by contrast, uses a non-wax binder.

Pro-Ride, which was founded in 1998, has been installed on training tracks at the Rosehill Gardens and Morphettville racetracks in Australia. The only Pro-Ride surface in North America was installed late last year at the Skylight Training Center outside Louisville, Ky.

Santa Anita's surface has been plagued by drainage problems. Rain last weekend forced the cancellation of racing Saturday, Sunday, and Monday because the surface was soggy and uneven. But even though the surface was dry on Thursday, concern remains over how Cushion Track will react the next time it rains in Southern California.

On Wednesday, a group of trainers and owners was told by Charles that Cushion Track was likely to be replaced within a week.

According to several people who attended the meeting - which was closed to the press - Charles said racing would be held on Cushion Track through Sunday or Monday, and then the material would be torn out, with a sand-based surface installed for the remainder of the meeting.

Charles told the group that it would take approximately 10 days to lay down the new surface and that, in the interim, Santa Anita would have several cards that would consist exclusively of turf racing.

"The minute we know we've got a solid plan for the rest of the meet, we will announce it," Charles said Thursday. "At the request of numerous horsemen, owners, trainers, and jockeys, we are continuing to lab-test our current synthetic material in order to see if there is anything we can do that would enable it to drain as it was designed to."

Santa Anita's surface, which had not been used since last Friday, was opened for training on Wednesday. On Thursday, a total of 231 horses recorded timed workouts over Cushion Track, including Into Mischief, the CashCall Futurity winner, who went six furlongs in 1:14.60 for trainer Richard Mandella.

By contrast, 87 horses worked across town at Hollywood Park. The difference was largely because horses at Santa Anita were not able to work for most of the past week, while Hollywood Park has remained open and has had a more consistent number of workers each morning. Still, the number of workers at Santa Anita indicated that trainers are confident in the surface now that it is dry.

"It's a good track, certainly safe," Eoin Harty, who has horses stabled at both Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, said Thursday. "It should be perfect tomorrow."

Santa Anita on Tuesday received permission from the state racing board to move dates to Hollywood Park if it desired. On Jan. 17, the board will have another special meeting and vote on an amendment to waive the requirement that Santa Anita conduct this meeting on a synthetic surface. That will give Santa Anita the option of replacing the Cushion Track with a dirt surface.

The racing board, in 2006, mandated that all major Thoroughbred tracks in the state install a synthetic surface by the end of 2007. Santa Anita installed Cushion Track last summer at a cost exceeding $10 million.

Although times on Cushion Track usually have been faster than on the old dirt surface, times for the early races Thursday were in line with races run on the dirt. Thursday's first race, for older maidens eligible to be claimed for $25,000, went to class-dropper Brother Pegasus, who was timed in 1:43.85 for 1 1/16 miles. The second race, for older $25,000 claimers, went to another class-dropper, Nerinx, who completed 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:02.34.

In an attempt to make up as many lost races as possible from last weekend, Santa Anita will add races to its upcoming cards. Eleven races are scheduled for both Saturday and Sunday, and nine are scheduled for Monday. To accommodate the extra races, post time will be moved forward 15 minutes, to 11:45 a.m. Pacific time on Saturday and Sunday, and 12:45 p.m. on Monday.