12/22/2010 1:05PM

Trainers have plenty of praise for Santa Anita's dirt track

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Jay Privman
A rainbow appeared over Santa Anita on Wednesday, after the main track was again closed for training because of rain.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Santa Anita’s new main track is getting a trial by water.

With opening day fast approaching, a series of soaking, sometimes vicious storms pounded the area. By Wednesday morning, when entries were being taken for Sunday’s opening-day card, the rainfall had totaled more than 12 inches since last Saturday.

Had this happened a year ago, when the old synthetic track had drainage problems, opening day might very well have been in jeopardy.

“The old stuff, that would have been a disaster,” trainer Bob Baffert said.

But optimism was high Wednesday, because the new dirt track had a tight seal on it, and the rain was running right off of it. It was closed for training, for the fourth time in the last five days, in order to try and keep it in optimum shape for an opening day that everyone will be closely watching.

“We’ve got a great seal on it,” Richard Tedesco, Santa Anita’s track superintendent, said Wednesday morning. “We’ve had floats going over the track to keep the water moving. We’ll be able to open it up Thursday morning. Considering all we’ve been through, I’m very happy. It happened at a good time. It’s a new racetrack, and we learned what we can do and what we can’t do.”

During the recent storms, Tedesco has had at least one member of his crew at the track around the clock.

“It feels great,” said jockey David Flores, who braved the rain to walk across the track near the top of the stretch. “They’ve sealed it. They’re doing the right thing. It’s beautiful. The water’s not going in.

“I missed this,” he said, smiling broadly.

Santa Anita has returned to dirt following three years of a synthetic-track racing, first with Cushion Track, then with an overhaul from Pro-Ride. The synthetic surfaces were installed because of a mandate from the California Horse Racing Board in May 2006. Santa Anita lost 16 days of racing the past two winters because the synthetic surface would not adequately drain.

Last summer, Santa Anita opted to put a dirt track back in, and the racing board obliged. The new track – 86 percent sand, 8 percent clay, and 6 percent silt – is designed to retain moisture, according to Tedesco.

“This track is going to be good,” said trainer Eric Guillot, who left this circuit because of his dislike of synthetic surfaces. “It’s the reason I’m back. This track is more like the one at Fair Grounds than any track I’ve ever seen.”

The new surface, installed by Ted Malloy of track owner MI Developments and overseen daily by Tedesco, was in place by Dec. 6, but because of the recent weather, most horses have had no more than one work over the track. During that window of opportunity, times were uniformly fast.

“It’s fast, but it’s not hard,” Guillot said. “This is like fine silica sand. This track will tighten up with water. I’m glad they’ve closed it for training. We need to get off to a good start on Sunday. This track is going to be very good. It will probably be a little speed biased. I think dirt handicappers are going to love it. People with plodders are going to hate it.”

Trainer Bob Hess Jr. said the surface “looks like a combination of Fair Grounds and Churchill Downs.”

“I think it will hold water well,” Hess said. “Hopefully, the gamblers will be happy, because gamblers fuel our sport.”

Trainer Mike Machowsky said his horses have worked fast over the new track “but they’ve all come back good.”

“When the horses come by, you can’t hear them,” said trainer Gary Stute, who was decidedly in the anti-synthetic camp, praising the kindness of the surface. “I’ve only worked my horses once, but so far, so good. This is the first time in a few years that I’m excited.”

The last punch from this relentless series of storms was expected to pass through by Wednesday afternoon. Sunshine and temperatures in the upper 60s were forecast for Thursday through Saturday. By Sunday, opening day, clouds are expected to return, and there is a 30 percent chance of rain.