Updated on 08/26/2010 11:31PM

Santa Anita to get dirt track by December, Stronach says

Barbara D. Livingston
A worker tends to the Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita.

DEL MAR, Calif. – The synthetic-track era at Santa Anita will end this fall.

Frank Stronach, chairman of Santa Anita’s parent company MI Developments, told a group of approximately 250 horsemen on Wednesday evening that Santa Anita will replace its existing Pro-Ride synthetic surface with a conventional dirt track after the conclusion of the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting on Oct. 31.

Stronach said the new dirt track would be in place “by the first week of December,” well in advance of the opening of the winter-spring meeting at Santa Anita on Dec. 26.

“We are committed to building a new dirt track,” Stronach said, receiving a round of applause. “We will do it now. We will gather the engineering and look for the materials. After Oak Tree is finished, we will have the track in place by the first week of December. The horses can train over it, and we can run over it on Dec. 26.”

Stronach did not say what type of dirt would be installed, or from where the material will be acquired. Dennis Mills, the chief executive officer of MI Developments, said Wednesday evening that bids for material are currently being collected and that a decision could be made in the next week.

Stronach spoke for 18 minutes, also discussing in broad terms ways to better promote racing. During a 12-minute question-and-answer period, he said the installation of a dirt track will cost “$5 to $6 million.”

Stronach’s announcement came on the eve of a California Horse Racing Board meeting in which noted racetrack expert Mick Peterson issued a report about the condition of the Santa Anita Pro-Ride track. In recent weeks, there has been concern among horsemen about the surface, with the focus on whether rocks have risen from the sub-surface into the upper layer of the surface.

At Thursday’s racing board meeting, Peterson said his study discovered that the surface had an inconsistent layer of hard pan material below the top layer and that there was a higher-than-normal presence of rocks on the upper layer of the surface.

“My concern [is] with the hard pan layer not being level or consistent,” he said. “If there is a way to make that level or consistent, I believe that will address the issues. That will be up to maintenance personnel to tell you whether they can do that.”

Following Peterson’s report, and Stronach reiterating his position to install a dirt track, the issue was adjourned for one hour to allow representatives of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, California Thoroughbred Trainers, and Oak Tree to discuss whether to have the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita or Hollywood Park.

“I know there is a group of trainers who would like to not race at Santa Anita this year,” Oak Tree executive vice-president Sherwood Chillingworth said. “We also have a group of trainers who think the track is perfectly safe and will testify to that.

“We talked with [Santa Anita track superintendent] Rich Tedesco, and one of the inconsistencies in the surface is the track hasn’t been dressed for racing. It takes two or three weeks to get it ready in a consistent matter.

“They can move the surface back and rip the compacted base in two weeks. Those are two items that people objected to, inconsistency and hard pan. He thinks he can eliminate both of those.”

The decision to install a dirt track at Santa Anita was met favorably on Thursday morning by owners and trainers, who emphasized that safety was a major concern.

“I support getting a surface that is safe, no matter what it is,” owner Madeline Auerbach said. “I’m hoping that what they put in will be the best surface.”

Trainer A.C. Avila said a consistent surface is vital, for horses and bettors.

“We have to protect the horse, and we have to protect the people that support the business,” he said.

There is concern among some horsemen that the five-week period between the end of the Oak Tree meeting and early December will be insufficient to construct a dirt track.

Earlier this year, it appeared that Oak Tree would race at Hollywood Park after another Stronach-controlled subsidiary Magna Entertainment declared bankruptcy. When MI Developments took over Santa Anita from Magna Entertainment, the lease between Santa Anita and Oak Tree was voided. Oak Tree explored moving its meeting to Del Mar or Hollywood Park but stayed at Santa Anita after Stronach agreed in June on a one-year lease.

The move to install a dirt track at Santa Anita would bring to an end a three-year period in which Santa Anita’s races were run on two synthetic surfaces and encountered trouble with drainage. Acting on a mandate by the racing board, the track installed a Cushion Track surface in the summer of 2007, but the material was plagued by drainage problems, leading to the cancellation of 11 racing days.

A Pro-Ride surface was installed in the summer of 2008, but it too had drainage problems earlier this year, forcing the cancellation of five racing days.