05/24/2008 12:00AM

Santa Anita to keep current surface


ARCADIA, Calif. - Pending watering tests later this week, Santa Anita is planning to retain the synthetic surface now in place on its main track for at least another year, track president Ron Charles said Friday.

Earlier this year, track officials said they were considering replacing the existing surface with another synthetic surface or a dirt track. But after Frank Stronach, the chairman of the track’s owner, Magna Entertainment Corp., met with horsemen on April 23, a decision was reached to keep the existing surface, Charles said.

"When Stronach came out and we met with the trainers and owners, his quote at the time was, 'Everyone seemed to like it. As long as it gets by the tests, we'll try it for another year or two,' " Charles said. "That's where we are right now."

Charles cautioned that "the time period isn't gone" for the track to choose another synthetic surface or install a dirt surface, though such a decision is unlikely. Santa Anita will host the Breeders' Cup on Oct. 24-25 and again in 2009, and its Oak Tree meeting begins on Sept. 24.

To comply with the California Horse Racing Board mandate that all major tracks install a synthetic surface by the end of 2007, Santa Anita installed a Cushion Track surface last August at a cost of more than $10 million. The surface performed adequately during the Oak Tree meeting last fall, but failed to drain sufficiently during a series of rainstorms in January and February at the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting, leading to the cancellation of 11 racing days. In early February, components of the Pro-Ride synthetic surface from Australia were added to the existing surface.

The mixing of the Pro-Ride fibers and polymers into the Cushion Track resulted in improved drainage and no further cancellations, with minimal rainfall during the remainder of the winter-spring meeting that ended on April 23. But the track did not drain to expectations on Thursday and Friday when an unexpected rainstorm dumped approximately two inches of rain on the track. Small pools of water remained on the surface Friday and some trainers curtailed training.

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, the surface will be extensively watered to simulate the effects of a three- to four-inch rainstorm. Training will be canceled on Thursday and possibly Friday. The tests, which had been planned for months, will help determine the proper mixture of wax, sand, fiber and other material that make up the track.

Ian Pearse of Melbourne, Australia, the founder of Pro-Ride, will be at Santa Anita to participate in the tests, Charles said.

"Unless we have a severe problem that showed up, the intent right now is to improve on the current surface, to have Ian Pearse come over, and [for us to] work with him," Charles said.

The track is scheduled to remain open for training through the summer during the Del Mar meeting that runs from July 16 to Sept. 3, but could close briefly to allow for a renovation of the synthetic surface.

"If we have to make improvements, we'll do it during Del Mar," Charles said.

Reaction to Santa Anita's decision was mixed among trainers.

Doug O'Neill is a synthetic track proponent, but is concerned about the effects that rain has had on the course in recent months.

"I'm behind the synthetic idea and concept,"; he said. "I think there is a lot of upside to it. We need to get to the point where rain isn't an issue and they're still working on it. I have full faith in it."

The surface has critics, including Bob Baffert.

"If I were to buy this track today, I'd put dirt in," he said. The synthetic track, said Baffert, "is here to stay. I'm just dealing with it."