10/19/2010 12:31PM

Synthetic experiments meet similar fates

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TUCSON, Ariz. – Reading the eulogy for Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride synthetic track delivered last week by the track’s president, George Haines, as heavy equipment began tearing the ersatz strip to shreds, brought back a flood of memories.

They began in the little town of Mechanicsburg, Pa., where I worked as a high school kid helping build a huge wartime arsenal of military supplies and ammunition at the start of World War II.

I returned to Mechanicsurg after the war as a young racing writer to witness the exciting intial trial of a synthetic strip at the Hempt Standardbred farm located there.

The words that day were celebratory, not memorial. They had begun months earlier with conversations between Johnny Nerud, then training Thoroughbreds for William L. McKnight, chairman of the mighty 3M Company and the owner of Tartan Farms, and Nerud’s good friend Delvin Miller, harness racing’s worldwide first citizen as trainer, driver, and breeder.

Nerud and Miller had interested McKnight in the possibilities of a synthetic track, and as a horseman and head of one of America’s most aggressive and progressive companies, McKnight sent his best engineers to work.

Big names in both sports were on hand that day in Mechanicsburg as some of Hempt’s trotters tested the new silent cushion fashioned at 3M. It was a joyful day, a pronounced success, and Miller, who had joined home builder and harness owner Ed Ryan in building The Meadows track south of Pittsburgh, volunteered to install a full five-eighth-mile Tartan surface at his track.

He did, and it was hailed there too as an early success.

And then it began to give way and break down under constant pounding, and a year or so later it was torn up and replaced by dirt.

By then, I was working in California, writing at harness race meetings at both Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, working for L.K. Shapiro, founder of Western Harness Racing, and his son Marvin. I recall Marvin’s two teen-age sons training and driving horses and getting deeply intrigued and involved in racing.

Years later, one of the boys, Richard, was named a member and then chairman of the California Horse Racing Board. He had grown up with the big crowds and public enthusiasm at Santa Anita and Hollywood, including the family’s wildly popular runner Native Diver, and with a deep love for horses. When horses began getting injured in numbers that alarmed him, he took quick and extreme action, not suggesting but mandating the building of million-dollar synthetic tracks in California.

Richard Shapiro’s life in racing jolted to a sad full stop, for all practical purposes, when his personal fortune was wiped out by Bernie Madoff and his associates in the nation’s biggest pyramid scam.

A few years before that financial disaster, Shapiro had invited me to pay a visit to share racing talk and ideas, and I joined him for dinner in Los Angeles, admiring his zest for life and love for horse racing. I was impressed with his determination to restore racing to the public popularity and atmosphere in which he had grown up as a young man. I left dinner that night energized by his enthusiasm, never dreaming of the catastrophes ahead, and I was deeply saddened when they struck.

And so, as it became apparent that Pro-Ride was not the answer to synthetic success, just as 3M’s Tartan had not been, I realized things had come full circle in racing, as in much of life. First, I had watched Delvin Miller’s dream for a synthetic track implode, and now Richard Shapiro’s as both visions disintegrated with their tracks.

But a racing surface that doesn’t work is a relatively small matter, although a highly expensive one, in horse racing.

Illegal medication, like synthetic tracks, is not an answer, either, but it looms as a far greater threat to our welfare.

Short cuts attempting to bypass integrity can tear the fabric of racing to bits far smaller than Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride, and if not curtailed can bring the sky crashing on our heads. This may be Chicken Little talk, but it is no small matter to those scratching out a living on the track today – or making a killing – whether on dirt or synthetics, and regardless of breed.

The voices of the past and realities of the present haunt me. I am worried, not by the narrowing of the road or how it is paved, but by its direction.