04/17/2008 11:00PM

Santa Anita quandary: Dirt or synthetic?


ARCADIA, Calif. - Santa Anita ends its four-month winter-spring meeting on Sunday, with the future of the track's synthetic racing surface unclear and trainers and owners divided on whether to install a dirt track or stay with a synthetic surface.

When the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting begins on Sept. 24, it is unclear what surface will be in place on a track that will host the Breeders' Cup races on Oct. 24 and 25.

Frank Stronach, the chairman of the track's parent company, Magna Entertainment, is scheduled to spend the weekend in California and will meet with a group of horsemen on Sunday to discuss the track's options.

Track president Ron Charles said earlier this week that a decision on the racing surface "will be made soon, possibly this weekend." The options include leaving the existing synthetic track in place, installing a new synthetic surface, or installing a dirt surface similar to the one in place before last summer.

"I've been heavily lobbied on both sides," Charles said.

Charles said he has received "quite a few letters from prominent stables and trainers on both sides of the issue."

"If we were to go away from a synthetic, they wouldn't be back," he said of those wanting to run their horses over a synthetic track. "I've had some calls that said unless we go back to the dirt, they need to know so they could make a decision."

The installation of a new synthetic surface or a dirt surface would take place in July and August when Santa Anita is closed during the Del Mar meeting. A new surface would have to be ready for training by Sept. 3, when the Del Mar meeting ends.

Asked what surface Stronach would prefer, Charles said, "Frank, in the past, has been more of a traditional dirt proponent."

Charles said that the cost to change the surface depends on several variables, such as what type surface is installed, how much work would be needed on the base, and where materials could be gathered.

"We don't have all those figures," he said.

Charles said he has been in touch with "a number of quarries" about gathering material for a dirt surface.

Santa Anita installed a Cushion Track synthetic surface last summer, but the course failed to sufficiently drain during significant rainstorms in January and February, leading to the cancellation of 11 days of racing. Polymers and fibers from another synthetic surface, Pro-Ride of Australia, were added to the existing Cushion Track in early February. The track has drained better since those materials were added, and there have been no additional cancellations.

The circuit's other two major tracks - Del Mar and Hollywood Park - have synthetic tracks. The California Horse Racing Board mandated the state's major Thoroughbred tracks install a synthetic track by the start of 2008 or lose racing dates. Earlier this year, racing board chairman Richard Shapiro backed away from that mandate, saying that he was "not totally opposed" to the installation of a safe dirt track. He said he hoped that Santa Anita would keep a synthetic track.

The issue has sparked massive debate among horsemen. Owners and trainers in favor of synthetic tracks have argued that the surface has reduced injuries and led to more horses in training. Opponents of synthetic tracks say they cause different types of injuries than dirt does, and that the surfaces need more testing.

There are familiar names on both sides of the debate. Eoin Harty, who trains top Kentucky Derby winner Colonel John, is a supporter of synthetic tracks.

"If they go for dirt, I will lose clients," Harty said. "I like synthetic tracks. I know for a fact they've kept my horses sounder compared to the attrition rate I suffered in the past."

Ed Halpern, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, said his organization "has been strongly in favor of synthetic surfaces." In a recent poll of Santa Anita trainers, Halpern said that 70 percent wanted a synthetic track.

Owner-breeder Jerry Moss, a member of the California Horse Racing Board, said he has been in contact with Stronach, and requested that Stronach install a dirt surface.

"There is nothing as consistent as dirt," Moss said. "The intentions were well-placed. I think the vendors let us down tremendously, certainly in the case with Santa Anita. I don't think we can afford to have another inconsistent track at the best racetrack in the world."

John Sadler, who trains for Moss, is in favor of a return to a dirt track until more tests are conducted on synthetic tracks.

"I would hope they go back to dirt at Santa Anita until they work things out," he said. "I have to be on the dirt list until they perfect the surfaces so we're not an experiment."