01/03/2008 1:00AM

Santa Anita girds for rainstorm

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Track maintenance crews at Santa Anita, in concert with officials from Cushion Track Footings, worked feverishly on Thursday morning to prepare the main track in anticipation of a series of storms set to bear down on Southern California over the next few days.

The work took place less than 24 hours after Cushion Track announced it would replace the surface at the end of the meet if it continues to drain improperly.

Thursday, the seventh day of the scheduled 85-day meeting, was the start of five consecutive days of racing, all of which were expected to be affected by what Weather.com described Thursday as "a series of storm systems" with "the potential for massive amounts of precipitation."

The forecast was potentially dire for Santa Anita, whose Cushion Track surface has never drained properly, even after significant maintenance in December designed to correct the problem. Ron Charles, Santa Anita's president, said on Thursday morning that he was "very concerned."

"We're expecting a tremendous amount of rain over the next four days," he said.

Charles said he appreciated that Cushion Track publicly acknowledged the problem on Wednesday and that the company had pledged to fix it.

Cushion Track installed the new surface at Santa Anita over the summer, and it was used for the first time during the Oak Tree meeting in the fall. Problems with the way the track drained were discovered even before the Oak Tree meet, and the track was closed for 2 1/2 weeks in December as track workers tried to fix it.

"The sand seems to be the area of concern," said Paul Harper, the technical director for Cushion Track. The surface includes sand, fiber, and rubber, all coated in wax, with a drainage system that is supposed to whisk water from the surface to pipes that lay below extensive layers of porous material underneath.

Harper said that if a solution to help the track drain vertically is not found, "we will install a new surface at the end of the meet," which closes April 20.

Cushion Track was also installed at Hollywood Park, during the summer of 2006. According to Harper, Santa Anita's track was designed to perform similarly to Hollywood Park's, but also to withstand the severe heat that frequently occurs at Santa Anita during the fall Oak Tree meeting.

According to a press release issued Wednesday from Cushion Track, "The focus on the high temperatures was in hindsight a mistake as this has almost certainly compromised the drainage characteristics of the surface."

Harper was at Santa Anita on Thursday, working in concert with Richard Tedesco, Santa Anita's track superintendent. The main track was closed for training on Thursday at 8:45 a.m., a full hour earlier than usual. Between then and first post at 1 p.m., material was added to the surface, then mixed in using harrows.

"We added stabilizer, which is a derivative of Metamucil," Tedesco said. "It will grab 30 times its weight in water. We're trying to get the track stabilized because of this drainage problem. We want to grab the water before it gets to the bottom and we lose this track."

Tedesco said he and his crew had used Wednesday's dark day to put some banking in the backstretch and homestretch in a further attempt to help the track drain.

"We want it to flow off the top," he said.

Cushion Track installed the track with no banking in the straightaways, the theory being that none would be needed since the track would drain through the surface.

Tedesco said he expected to seal the track after racing on Thursday, a process that was done with the old natural dirt surface, but was expected to be unnecessary with a synthetic surface.

"If there's any chance of rain tonight, it will be sealed," Tedesco said shortly before Thursday's first race.

Santa Anita is owned by Magna Entertainment, which also owns Golden Gate Fields in Northern California. Golden Gate installed Tapeta Footings, which is made by former trainer Michael Dickinson.

Dickinson, reached on his cell phone on Thursday in Great Britain, said he had yet to be contacted by Santa Anita or Cushion Track to consult on the drainage problem at Santa Anita.

"If they ask me, I would be delighted to help in any way I can," Dickinson said.