01/08/2009 12:00AM

Surface tension on the rise at Santa Anita


ARCADIA, Calif. - Tension is growing over the Pro-Ride racing surface at Santa Anita with some trainers contending that it is not safe and that injuries have increased since the artificial surface was installed last fall.

The frustrations were evident at a horsemen's meeting Wednesday with Pro-Ride founder Ian Pearse. Privately, many of the three-dozen trainers in attendance expressed disappointment in the surface and wished Santa Anita would reinstall a dirt track.

More than one trainer complained of lameness in their horses, but no one seemed to know why.

"My horses have stayed reasonably sound, but I feel like I've been lucky," trainer Mark Glatt said. "It's like walking through a minefield. There are holes; it's inconsistent."

Is it really that bad? Depends who you ask.

"Overall, the track hasn't been that bad," trainer Jack Carava said. "It has the potential to be good, it just needs some tweaking. I think it's something they can get right. I don't think it should be [addressed] with the lynch-mob mentality some people have."

But tempers are short at Santa Anita, with those who don't like the surface sniping at those who do. Horse racing used to be more fun. Now everyone - trainers, management and horseplayers - is caught in the crossfire. You are either for the Pro-Ride, or against it. Apparently, there is no middle ground.

"The track is fine," stated trainer Bobby Frankel.

Ron Charles, the track president and CEO, was out of town and missed Wednesday's meeting. On Thursday, Charles said: "The quotes were alarming and disturbing."

Charles met with a few trainers and veterinarians at the track on Thursday.

"We discussed what might have been the problem," Charles said. "If the track indeed was the problem, what do we do to make it better.

"Do we deserve criticism for the first week? Absolutely."

The issue was brought to the fore when three horses suffered fatal breakdowns the first five days of the meet, which began Dec. 26. But there have been no fatal breakdowns through Wednesday since Dec. 31. At the Wednesday meeting, Pearse said that cold weather and rain may have changed characteristics of the track, and caused it to become denser than preferred. Plans now call for increased monitoring of track density, and increased harrowing to maintain the proper mix.

Track superintendent Richard Tedesco said on Wednesday: "When this track is good it's better than dirt, and it's good now. The track might have been real compacted down below [prior to being harrowed], but we've alleviated that."

Some trainers say the track worsened last weekend by becoming uneven. But when Pearse arrived from Australia and inspected the track on Monday, he failed to share the same concerns.

"When I stood on the track [Monday], I was like - what am I doing here?" Pearse said.

Pearse was instrumental in rescuing the winter meet of 2007-08, when 11 racing days were cancelled because the surface at that time, Cushion Track, was not draining sufficiently. In summer 2008, Pearse was contracted by Santa Anita to reinstall the main track to Pro-Ride specifications.

"In the ideal world, you'd like to start with a clean slate, but that wasn't the option at the time," Pearse said. "I'm satisfied with [the surface]. It's got rebound, it's got low density; I think it's fine."

According to veterinarian Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, catastrophic injuries overall have decreased with the advent of synthetic surfaces. But questions remain over the long-term effects of racing on synthetic surfaces. Some horsemen say they have simply traded some injuries for others.

"The real problem is we don't know what the problem is," veterinarian Dr. Jeff Blea said at the Wednesday meeting. "Injuries now are a lot different than they were a year ago."

The challenge is data collection. Barring a reliable program for reporting of injuries sustained during training, synthetic-surface assessment is based largely on anecdotal evidence.

Some trainers previously supportive of synthetic surfaces are asking questions now, including Vladimir Cerin, who pointed to an increase in injuries to his horses.

Bad luck? Could be. Horses will be injured regardless of surface.

As for handicapping the meet, the track has played relatively fair, assuming a horse handles the surface. But two well-regarded 3-year-olds already shipped to Gulfstream Park after struggling with the Santa Anita Pro-Ride.

Snapshot, a Cliff Sise-trained son of Awesome Again, finished fifth as the 2-1 favorite in race 3 on Jan. 3. Sise said jockey David Flores told him, "He spun his wheels."

The same thing happened Dec. 29 in race 6 with Frankel-trained Andiron. A top prospect sired by A.P. Indy, he ran last in his debut and shipped to Gulfstream. "It wasn't because of safety," Frankel said. "A.P. Indys don't run great on grass, and [Pro-Ride] is like grass. Certain horses are going to [prefer] sand."

As the Santa Anita meet enters its third weekend, one cannot help but wonder.

California has a problem. Synthetic surfaces might be safer, as proponents attest. Or maybe they are not. Depends who you ask.

That is the problem. Nobody has a definitive answer. No one.