04/13/2012 4:17PM

Santa Anita adds sand, seeking slower, safer main track

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ARCADIA, Calif. – Sand has been added to Santa Anita’s clay-and-sand main track in recent weeks, a procedure welcomed by some horsemen who say the racing surface is slower and safer than it was earlier this year.

The California Horse Racing Board has yet to release fatality statistics for this year’s meet, which began Dec. 26 and ends April 22, so it is not clear whether there have been fewer main-track casualties compared to last season. But some horsemen say adding sand has made the track safer.

Santa Anita’s clay-and-sand track has been the subject of periodic maintenance since it was installed to replace a synthetic track in late 2010. Last summer, for example, the surface underwent significant changes to reduce clay content and add sand.

Santa Anita is the only major Southern California track with a dirt surface. Del Mar has a Polytrack synthetic surface, while Hollywood Park has a Cushion Track synthetic surface. Santa Anita installed a synthetic track in 2007 and removed it in 2010 after it repeatedly failed to drain during rainstorms.

Santa Anita president George Haines said Wednesday that sand will be added to the racetrack when deemed necessary to restore a proper balance between clay and sand.

“We will add material like we did last week,” Haines said. “I think the track has been good lately. We’ve been dodging in and out of the rain and had to change maintenance plans.”

Later, he described the new sand as “a more durable material” than what had been added in the past.

Haines said he thought the surface had become more fair in recent weeks after a speed bias dominated the early weeks of the meeting,

“The times are coming back,” he said. “It’s not playing as fast as it was early in the meeting.”

The slower track seems to have translated into a safer surface.

Although official figures are not available for the current meet because of a new policy initiated by the California Horse Racing Board, Haines said there have been fewer fatal breakdowns in the last month than there were earlier at the meeting.

“I think we had a rough start, but the last few months have been good,” he said.

At the 2010-11 winter-spring meeting, there were 18 fatalities during racing – 12 on the main track and six on turf. The figures were published by the California Horse Racing Board through the annual report on its website, reflecting the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2011. The 2010-11 winter-spring meeting was the only one held at Santa Anita during that fiscal year.

In March, the racing board altered its policy on releasing information related to fatal breakdowns upon request, citing the need for a review at the conclusion of each meeting. A racing board spokesman said the information on the current meeting would be published in an annual report in February 2013.

At the time the new policy was announced, the racing board said in a statement that a year-end review of fatal breakdowns allows for a more thorough report on the causes of injuries.

“The CHRB is committed to the transparency demonstrated by its comprehensive fatality reporting and intends to continue ensuring the accuracy of its fatality information that is presented to the public in the annual report,” the statement said. “It is the policy of the CHRB not to release fatality data prior to its publication in the annual report.”

The number of main-track fatalities during racing at this meeting is believed to be nine, according to one source. There have been an unknown number of fatal injuries during training.

Some trainers say the track has shown improvement in recent weeks.

“Personally, we haven’t had any significant issues with the track,” trainer Darrell Vienna said. “I’ve heard some report of people that have had problems.

“I think the track is a work in progress. There have been modifications during the meeting. I think it’s trending in the right direction. They have been adding a different kind of sand.

“It isn’t perfect. I think it’s slowing down a bit.”

Trainer Jack Carava, also based at Santa Anita, said the track is at its best when the weather is dry.

“I’ve had a good meeting, but I’ve heard some complaints,” Carava said.

“A lot of it depends on the last time it was sealed. It’s a good track when we’ve had fair weather.”

Dr. Rick Arthur, the racing board’s equine medical director, declined to discuss the specific number of racing fatalities at the meeting. He emphasized that post-mortem examinations are conducted on all horses that are euthanized.

“It’s going to be generally similar to last year,” he said of the data.

“There are variations, and there always are. They are relatively rare events, and they have a tendency to spike up at different times.

“We’re doing a much more and in-depth analysis of fatalities. We know more about this racetrack than we do any racetrack in the world. I hope it will improve safety.”

Haines said that the track’s composition will be closely watched in coming months, but that no major renovation plans are scheduled. Santa Anita hosts the Breeders’ Cup races this fall, on Nov. 2-3.

“We’re going to continue regular additions of sand as part of our maintenance plan,” he said. “You’re losing it constantly because of erosion and horses carrying it off the track,” he said.