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Trainers, Tedesco talk over surface issues
DEL MAR, Calif. - Richard Tedesco, the track superintendent at Santa Anita and Del Mar, said at meeting with trainers Monday that he could have had Santa Anita’s main track in shape for the Oak Tree meeting had racing remained there instead of being moved to Hollywood Park. Tedesco made his comment during a wide-ranging 90-minute meeting of the California Thoroughbred Trainers at Del Mar.
Concerns over the condition of Santa Anita’s surface caused the California Horse Racing Board, at the insistence of the CTT and Thoroughbred Owners of California, to last week deny Oak Tree a license to run its upcoming meet at Santa Anita. The meet instead will be run at Hollywood Park. Tedesco said he had harbored concerns about the viability of the surface, but he said extensive watering of the track last week had “opened up” areas that were compacted.
“I did not state I couldn’t fix it,” Tedesco said.
The CTT meeting was called largely to update local trainers over the status of the new surface that will be put in at Santa Anita, and related issues, such as stabling. The switch to dirt at Santa Anita and moving of Oak Tree to Hollywood Park has caused a great rift here among trainers, and though the well-attended meeting largely was civil, there were some passionate moments of heated debate directed by supporters of synthetic surfaces at a board that is pro-dirt.
Among the news gleaned from the meeting is that although the new Santa Anita surface will be dirt, where the dirt will come from and the exact timetable of when it will be installed is not certain. In addition, Tedesco - who enjoys respect among trainers, regardless of their position on synthetics vs. dirt - said he will not oversee the new track’s installation. Instead, Ted Malloy, an employee of Santa Anita parent company MI Developments who is based at Gulfstream Park, will supervise.
Tedesco said that Santa Anita officials asked him to relay to the CTT that “no horses will be allowed on the grounds until the second week of December.” Santa Anita’s main winter meeting opens Dec. 26. The local horse population all cannot fit at Hollywood Park, so overflow horses will have to go to Fairplex Park in Pomona, or San Luis Rey Downs in Bonsall, about 45 minutes from Del Mar. Trainer Barry Abrams expressed a desire to remain at Del Mar until Oak Tree opens, which would require Del Mar to stay open for training more than two weeks longer than originally scheduled.
Alan Balch, the executive director of the CTT, announced just before the meeting began that it would be closed to the media, or at least considered off the record. But after being verbally petitioned, the CTT board agreed to allow two reporters to stay, and all comments were on the record.
Trainer Sean McCarthy expressed concern over whether the timetable to install a dirt surface before Santa Anita’s main winter meeting opens was realistic, citing the need to acquire dirt, put out contract bids, and obtain permits.
“This puts us in a crunch to get done by Dec. 26,” McCarthy said, adding that if the surface was going to be replaced, he felt it should be done in spring 2011, after Santa Anita’s main winter meeting, when the window of opportunity to install a new track would be wider.
“I don’t think we could have taken another winter at Santa Anita with the track we had,” countered trainer Mike Mitchell.
“They’ll get it done, no question,” said John Sadler, a CTT board member.
“It’s a liability issue now,” said Bob Baffert, who is also on the CTT board. With all the concerns expressed about the current Santa Anita surface, “if a horse goes down, or a rider gets killed, we’re done,” Baffert said.
Darrell Vienna, the vice president of the CTT, began the meeting with a methodical slide show that detailed the composition of Santa Anita’s main track, the work that had been done on it during the winter meeting, and the concerns the CTT board had over the surface, most notably holes that had been punctured in the mesh subsurface during the winter meeting to facilitate drainage, and rocks from the subsurface that had subsequently come to the surface.
“The integrity and segregation of the layers has been seriously compromised,” Vienna said. He said the board’s position over moving Oak Tree from Santa Anita to Hollywood Park “was not just a pretext to bringing dirt back to Santa Anita.”
“The concern is safety,” Vienna said.
There were a number of trainers who questioned whether the Santa Anita surface was indeed unsafe, most notably Jim Cassidy, a past president of the CTT who did not seek to retain office in recent elections. Santa Anita has been closed during Del Mar.
“The racetrack was fine when I left in July,” said Cassidy, who was clearly angry and left the meeting before its conclusion. “There were problems with the hard pan, but there always have been. There were problems with the drainage, but there always have been.”
Tedesco said he believed he could have worked around both those concerns.
“From the time they punched the holes in the track until we left in July, the track was better than it had ever been,” Abrams said.
Several trainers attended the meeting with the hope of a hail Mary moment to get Oak Tree to return to Santa Anita this fall. But Richard Mandella, a trainer and an Oak Tree board member, said Oak Tree was moving ahead with plans to run at Hollywood Park.
Oak Tree’s relationship with Magna has gone downhill since Magna Entertainment went bankrupt and parent company MI Developments took over and, by law, was allowed to void contracts, such as the lease with Oak Tree. Mandella said that Dennis Mills, MI Developments’s chief executive, has asked Oak Tree’s personnel to leave the Santa Anita grounds in December.
“We told him our contract said we could stay until June, and he said, ‘Sue us,’ so that’s the relationship we have,” Mandella said. “We’re pretty much of the opinion they don’t want us.”
Mandella said Oak Tree could move its meeting to Del Mar next year.
While acknowledging having a fall meeting here would be an inconvenience to most trainers, who live in the greater Los Angeles area, “I’m asking you to keep your minds open,” Mandella said.
Both Vienna and Kathy Walsh, a CTT board member, said they held out hope Oak Tree could return to Santa Anita in future years.
Mandella, a synthetic supporter, said "what’s done is done” regarding the move to a dirt track at Santa Anita.
“I hope we get the best dirt track the world has ever seen,” he said.
Mel Stute, 80, applauded the return to dirt at Santa Anita, and expressed a desire for dirt to return to all Southern California tracks.
“I’ve been training for 50 years,” he said. “Before these surfaces, I put down five horses. Since then, I’ve put down 16, 15 owned by my wife. I want dirt here, too.”