01/12/2011 6:21PM

Rain spoils delicate mixture of Santa Anita's new main track


The mason jar full of dirt and water, shaken not stirred, was settling into layers, just like Rich Tedesco said it would. At the top rested the water. Then came the silt, and beneath that the sand. Behold, in miniature, what the Santa Anita main track had become.

Even accounting for the effects of climate change, El Nino, or any other weather anomaly you want to name, there was no contingency plan in place to deal with the inevitable impact of 15 inches of rain in barely a week’s time hitting the freshly laid course at the end of December.

But it happened, a deluge of Old Testament proportions, attacking a surface that despite its youth was enjoying generally good reviews from horsemen of all philosophies. However, since the heroic main track triage that allowed Santa Anita to open on Dec. 26 as scheduled, the surface has been under siege as – take your pick – too fast, too hard, and more recently yielding up way too many tightly packed dirt clods to be successfully dodged by man or beast.

Tedesco is the Santa Anita track superintendent who for the past three years wrestled with the synthetic surfaces that worked only under optimum conditions, and then only if you held your breath. For him, a new dirt course should have been a reprieve.

Instead, there he was last Monday, supervising an extensive renovation of the elements in an effort to restore the course to at least some semblance of the original.

“I’m convinced the mixture changed because of all that rain,” Tedesco said. “We’re dealing with clay that has worked its way to the top instead of the way it was originally blended. You saw what happened when you shook up that handful of track in the jar, and what settled where.”

Silt, the fine version of clay, tends to compact easily if not freed by the liberating qualities of sand, hence the clods that jockeys have been dealing with lately. Monday’s renovation began with a blading that moved the topsoil upslope, toward the outside of the track, after which the surface was broken up with thick-fingered harrows and then fluffed and mixed with a tiller.

Driving his golf cart, Tedesco circled the one-mile oval behind the various pieces of equipment, hopping out from time to time to test depths and monitor moisture. Despite the fact that the track had been yielding very fast times – too fast for the taste of some horsemen – Tedesco insisted that worst thing he could do was create a drastically different surface.

“Consistency is so important,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is go and slow a track way down when it’s been fast.”

Ted Malloy agrees. In his capacity as track surface consultant for all tracks owned by MI Developments, the Florida-based Malloy supervised the installation of the Santa Anita surface and continues to work with Tedesco on maintenance issues. He agrees that the most recent problem likely has been caused by too much clay.

“Over the course of floating the track during all those rains, the dirty water that rolls down contains basically clay,” Malloy said. “What has settled on the inside has gone from seven percent clay to God knows what.

“We couldn’t have even dreamt of getting that much rain,” Malloy added. “If it had hit a couple weeks earlier, while we were still finishing laying the track, I don’t think they would have been able to race on opening day, or maybe for a while after that.”

There is a temptation to whisper “be careful what you wish for” when it comes to the abandonment of Santa Anita’s version of the synthetic track experiment and its replacement with a more familiar dirt surface. In each of the last four seasons, horsemen have been faced with a different kind of ground over which to train and race, following several years of a rapidly deteriorating dirt surface that had been amended with things such as bark and wood chips.

To their credit, all but the most disingenuous trainers have held fire, giving Tedesco and Malloy the chance to bring the track back to where it was before the rains of late December. Jack Carava, among the perennial local leaders, had every right to complain after suffering through a number of injuries since opening day, but he declined.

“I was extra careful, too,” Carava noted. “Before coming over here from Hollywood I started galloping horses on the dirt training track over there. I took my time jogging and galloping here before I started to breeze, but that didn’t seem to matter. None of the injuries have been things they can’t come back from – mostly chips and condylar fractures – but they’re happening to horses I thought were the soundest in the barn.

“I will say this surface has potential,” added Carava, choosing his words carefully. “In fairness, I hear from a lot of guys that they love it and haven’t had many problems at all, so maybe I’ve just been unlucky.”

Both Malloy and Tedesco are in their 70s – “a hundred and fifty years between us, and Rich is three years younger than me!” Malloy said – so there’s not much they haven’t seen in a racing surface. They concede that their long-distance relationship is a challenge at times, and that strong personalities can clash.

“But heck,” Malloy said, “I yell at my wife sometimes, and we get along.”

There will be tests conducted on the surface mixture in the coming days to find out if the mix is indeed out of whack and more sand is needed.

“Poor Richard’s been going crazy I’m sure,” Malloy added. “But in light of what’s gone on, I would guess the composition that we started with has varied, and that will need to be addressed.”