08/20/2010 3:55PM

Surface switch a relief to many horsemen


At the end of the ordeal, the exchange that rang most painfully memorable at Thursday’s meeting of the California Horse Racing Board occurred during an impassioned testimony from Dr. Rick Arthur, the state’s equine medical director, who insisted he had the utmost confidence in the ability of the Santa Anita track superintendent to repair the track’s synthetic surface in time to run the Oak Tree there beginning Sept. 29. Arthur is also a member of the Oak Tree board.

The name he let slip, however, was “Richard Shapiro,” under whose reign as chairman of the CHRB synthetic tracks were mandated in California, instead of “Richard Tedesco,” the tireless superintendent lionized for saving the day at Santa Anita last winter through his management of the difficult surface and ongoing dedication to the challenge. Arthur quickly corrected himself, but that did not prevent CHRB vice chairman David Israel from jumping in with the classic comeback:

“Paging Dr. Freud.”

No question, the racing community of California has been put through a psychological wringer over the last half-dozen years. That anyone shows up to work at all is a testament to their love of the game, or gluttony for punishment, which may be the same thing.

The instability of corporate racetrack ownership − in the case of Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Golden Gate Fields − coupled with the drastic drop in racehorse investment has been hard enough to swallow. Now that the seeds sown by the intemperate rush to install synthetic surfaces has come to full flower, it was probably inevitable that battle lines and bad blood would be drawn. Paging Dr. Freud, stat.

Supporters of synthetic technology, such as Dr. Arthur, felt they had an emerging statistical advantage with the studies of mortality and injury rates. In the debate, however, that advantage was betrayed by maintenance nightmares, especially at Del Mar and Santa Anita, where recent renovations to problem areas prompted the racing board to hire surface expert Dr. Mick Peterson to provide neutral data and present his findings to Thursday’s meeting.

Not a line of Peterson’s report held a surprise to anyone who had been paying the slightest attention. Anyway, in the end it was nothing more than kabuki theater, window dressing, and a waste of a talented man’s valuable time. He could have come in with hand puppets and the soundtrack to “The Sound of Music” and budged neither side an inch. The fate of the Oak Tree meet was already sealed.

The commissioners, as Chairman Keith Brackpool pointed out, could not approve an Oak Tree application to run at Santa Anita without support from the horsemen’s groups, primarily the Thoroughbred Owners of California, which holds legislative veto rights over purse contracts. The TOC, in its wisdom, deferred to the California Thoroughbred Trainers for an evaluation of the Santa Anita surface.

“The trainers are the experts,” noted TOC chairman Arnold Zetcher.

In fact, the leadership of the CTT already had made its decision about racing at Santa Anita before Peterson divulged his findings, according to CTT president John Sadler.

“We’d seen what had happened to the track during that renovation,” Sadler said. “We went with our experience, our gut. We felt there was no way proper repairs could be made in time, if at all.”

At that point, it did not matter that Tedesco and others testified otherwise.

The CTT position, asking Oak Tree to run instead at Hollywood Park this fall, was given ample cover the night before, when Frank Stronach, chairman of the company that owns Santa Anita, said the magic word to a large gathering of interested souls under the same roof, at the Del Mar satellite wagering facility.

Stronach said, “Dirt.”

“Dirt” was what a vocal and deeply frustrated segment of the population wanted to hear. “Dirt” represented the comfort of the known, a familiar demon that had been wrestled in the past instead of something that emerged from a laboratory test tube. For a large portion of Stronach’s audience, “dirt” sounded a return to motherhood, apple pie, and pitchers taking their own turn at bat.

The magic rippled outward. When Stronach said “dirt,” all was suddenly forgiven. The Austro-Canadian who promised can-can girls in a Santa Anita pleasuredome when he bought the place was proclaimed by some to be a hero. This, despite the fact horsemen had been repeatedly stung by Stronach’s chronic lack of making badly needed improvements to the Santa Anita and Golden Gate stables, by his choice to race only a handful of his hundreds of horses in California even before the age of synthetics, by his short-lived eviction of the non-profit Oak Tree Racing Association last June as an inconvenient tenant, and by his vow last spring that there would be no new racing surface at Santa Anita before the spring of 2011 at the earliest, and that the leading candidate, if there was one, would be a synthetic surface to be tested this winter at the Palm Meadows training center in Florida. Dirt, last April, was not in the picture.

This is the same Stronach who called synthetic technology “voodoo” at Thursday’s meeting. But by then, all he had to do was reiterate the magic word and − poof! − all was forgiven, without so much as a niggling detail to support this latest promise. Where will the dirt come from? Don’t know, said Stronach. How will it be different from past dirt surface technology? Don’t know. When will you start work on the new track, Frank? Don’t know. Of course, it helps if we could start right away, instead of waiting for the end of an Oak Tree meet.

So Oak Tree moves across town, and within the next few weeks the whole of California’s viable horse population will be shoehorned into Hollywood Park, where racing is likely to commence Sept. 29 and continue for nearly three solid months. And that’s only if the Santa Anita dirt track installation comes in on time.

There are California horsemen who see this as a chance to start things fresh, whereas others smell the beginning of the end, given the predictable challenges of stabling, track maintenance, and Hollywood’s inability to lure customers in significant numbers. There were a few people slapping backs and cheering at the end of the board meeting Thursday, but anyone happy with what has happened should think twice and listen instead to CTT president John Sadler, who conceded, “We’re rolling the dice.”