01/16/2008 12:00AM

Santa Anita finds solution

Benoit & Associates
The Cushion Track surface did not drain properly during a series of storms earlier this month, which forced the cancellation of racing for three straight days.

Santa Anita will continue to race on its synthetic surface Cushion Track for the remainder of the current meeting, but the surface will be reconstituted with binding material and fibers from the synthetic surface Pro-Ride, a combination that is expected to solve the track's drainage problems, Santa Anita president Ron Charles announced on Tuesday.

No timetable was given for installing the new material, but Charles said work would likely begin in less than two weeks.

"We are now in the process of developing a timeline for acquiring the necessary polymer and fiber," Charles said. "It is estimated that it will take 10 to 12 days to produce the binder."

Charles said that the current surface would not need to be removed and replaced. Instead, the new material would be mixed in over the course of several days.

"It is our intent to schedule the application so as to minimize any disruption to training or racing," he said.

The decision was made following lab experiments over the weekend conducted by the school of civil engineering at the University of Southern California.

"The tests show that we've found a way to reformulate the existing Cushion Track surface," Charles said. "With the addition of polymers and fiber, the surface becomes kinder, more consistent, and it cushions the impact of the track on the horses. It functions properly in diverse weather conditions and reduces the amount of kickback."

Santa Anita has been desperately looking for a solution to its drainage problems. The Cushion Track surface - a mixture of sand, rubber and natural and synthetic fibers, all coated in wax - did not drain properly during a series of storms earlier this month, which forced the cancellation of racing for three straight days.

Track officials last week called in Ian Pearse, the founder of the synthetic surface company Pro-Ride, which is based in Australia. Pearse worked in conjunction with Dr. Jean-Pierre Bardet, professor and chairman of the civil engineering department at USC. Their tests yielded a formula Charles believes will work.

"The test results are dramatic and extremely encouraging," Charles said. "We have only a short window of opportunity to get this done and we believe we have finally solved our Cushion Track drainage problem. After exhaustive research, we feel strongly that this is the way to go.

"We've made this choice based upon the results of scientific testing and the reaction of the horsemen to whom we've shown the final product. Trainers, owners, and jockeys have witnessed numerous demonstrations over the past three days and all parties have been overwhelmingly supportive. The addition of the Pro-Ride polymer and fiber effectively transforms the existing Cushion Track into the synthetic surface we wanted from the start."

Santa Anita's meet runs through April 20. No decision has been made on what Santa Anita will do regarding its surface once the meet ends. Some consideration had been made to removing Cushion Track and putting in a dirt surface for the balance of this meeting, but locating suitable material was difficult.

"We've conducted an extensive search nationwide to find 20,000 tons of high-quality material within the time frame we have to work with, and have been unsuccessful," Charles said.

The Santa Anita Cushion Track failed to drain properly the first time it was rained on in late September, just prior to the Oak Tree meeting. Pearse began working on the problem in Australia last fall as a consultant and then came to Santa Anita last week. He said lab tests demonstrated that the current composition of the track needed a binder to, according to a Santa Anita press release, "encapsulate the fine silt contained in the sand."

It is believed the binder, manufactured by Pro-Ride, will allow water to drain through the surface and be whisked away through the asphalt base and subsequent layer of pipes. Unlike, traditional dirt tracks, which drain to the sides, synthetic tracks are designed to allow water to pass straight through to the base.

Cushion Track was installed last summer as the result of a California Horse Racing Board mandate in 2006 that all major Thoroughbred tracks in the state switch to a synthetic surface by the end of 2007. Cushion Track beat out three other finalists - Polytrack, Pro-Ride, and Tapeta - in large part because Cushion Track had been generally well received by local trainers following its installation at Hollywood Park in the summer of 2006. Hollywood's Cushion Track has different sand and wax than Santa Anita's track.

Pro-Ride is in use on training tracks at racecourses and training centers, mainly in Australia. Its only use in North America is at the Skylight Training Center outside Louisville, Ky. Pro-Ride has yet to be used for racing.

Santa Anita last week received permission from the state racing board to move some of its dates to Hollywood Park. In addition, a racing board meeting is scheduled Thursday to waive the requirement that Santa Anita use a synthetic surface this meeting. Charles has repeatedly stressed that both of those developments were designed to give Santa Anita options to navigate through this crisis, but were not indications of what management intended to do.