01/08/2008 12:00AM

Santa Anita expands its options

Benoit & Associates
Workers use machinery to move parts of the waterlogged Cushion Track surface at Santa Anita.

Santa Anita on Tuesday received unanimous permission from the California Horse Racing Board to move some of its dates across town to Hollywood Park if needed, but Ron Charles, Santa Anita's president, said he believed that would not be necessary.

At the same time, Santa Anita on Monday night and then again Tuesday was removing gobs of its mushy Cushion Track surface, the reason for the current crisis, which caused racing to be canceled last Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. And in a surprising development, the racing board posted notice of a special meeting on Jan. 17 at which an amendment would be voted on that would allow Santa Anita to run the remainder of its meeting on a conventional dirt track.

While no one at Santa Anita would publicly acknowledge the possibility, it was becoming clear that Santa Anita was considering removing Cushion Track, installing a regular dirt surface to get through the meeting, and then addressing what to do in the future after the meet ends April 20.

Charles promised a formal announcement of Santa Anita's plans on Thursday, when the track is scheduled to race again.

"We will have an announcement in the next 48 hours that we believe will be well received," Charles said during the board's emergency meeting Tuesday, which was conducted via telephone.

"It's up to us to address this problem, which we inherited from Cushion Track, and have a contingency strategy that gives us a safe surface and allows us to race, even in the rain," Charles said.

Richard Shapiro, chairman of the racing board, said next week's special meeting is designed to "find a very quick solution, any possible alternative, for the benefit of the industry."

Cushion Track was installed at Santa Anita last summer, at a cost exceeding $10 million, after a racing board mandate in 2006 that all major Thoroughbred tracks in the state have a synthetic surface by the end of 2007. The surface has not drained properly, which has caused the cancellation of racing and curtailed training, following a series of storms last weekend.

Santa Anita's main track, scraped of much of its Cushion Track on Monday afternoon, was open for training Tuesday morning, although orange cones, known as dogs, were set up to protect the inside portion of the surface. Six horses worked over that surface, while another four worked on the smaller infield training track, which has a traditional dirt surface.

Across town at Hollywood Park, 150 horses had recorded works, including Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Midnight Lute. Hollywood Park also has Cushion Track, but its surface is a different mixture than that at Santa Anita, which uses a different type of sand and a more heat-resistant wax. Hollywood's surface has drained satisfactorily during the recent wet weather.

Santa Anita has contacted Del Mar, which has a Polytrack synthetic surface, about using Del Mar temporarily for training only, not for racing.

"It's a possibility. I don't know to what degree it's a probability," Tom Robbins, the racing secretary at Del Mar, said Tuesday. "We're prepping the racetrack and a portion of the barn area in case they decide they need it."

Charles, who on Tuesday was named the chief operating officer of Santa Anita's parent company, Magna Entertainment, said officials at Del Mar and Hollywood Park have been accommodating in offering whatever assistance Santa Anita needs to get through this crisis. But he said "we don't anticipate needing to use this waiver, or amendment," to race at Hollywood Park.

The racing board's emergency meeting on Tuesday was largely procedural. Santa Anita's license to race from Dec. 26 to April 20 did not allow it to move any of its dates. The amendment that the board considered on Tuesday removed that impediment. It passed by a 6-0 vote.

"This is simply to allow the possibility of Santa Anita running all or some of its races at Hollywood Park if necessary," Shapiro said. "This is not designed to dictate whether Santa Anita should go to Hollywood Park. That's for the stakeholders to decide."

Shapiro made further allusions to the racing board being a regulatory body. This is a step back from the aggressive posture the board has taken in recent years. Though the racing board has traditionally been a regulatory body, the Shapiro-led board has mandated policy in any number of areas, including the decision to require tracks like Santa Anita to put in synthetic surfaces.

According to Weather.com, there is only a 10 percent chance of rain on any day over the next 10 days in the Arcadia, Calif., area, where Santa Anita is located. In general, the weather is forecast through Jan. 17 as being sunny and windy, with highs ranging from the mid-60s to 70 degrees.