01/22/2010 12:00AM

Trip prompts California dreaming


NEW YORK - A visit to Santa Anita last weekend was an instant cure for this Easterner's winter blues and racing blahs, and it had nothing to do with the results announced at Monday's Eclipse Awards. The three ingredients in the restorative tonic were rediscovering the pleasures of a day at Santa Anita, the impromptu announcement at the track that Zenyatta will race again this year, and the confirmation that the track is replacing its beleaguered racing surface this summer, quite possibly with a return to dirt.

At the risk of having my Belmont and Saratoga privileges revoked, I'll just say it: There is no prettier or more pleasant place in America to spend a day at the races than Santa Anita. It has a sort of tropical majesty matched only by Hialeah in its heyday. For all the sniping about some of the alterations to the place under Magna's ownership, it is every bit as grand and a lot more functional than when I first saw it 30 years ago.

The news that Zenyatta will continue racing was particularly refreshing after two months of polarizing and largely pointless debate about whether she or Rachel deserved to be racing's Horse of the Year for 2009. They both did, and it was difficult if not impossible to compare their radically different campaigns. I'm not sure I agree with the prevailing sentiment that the debate itself was great for racing, simply for keeping any discussion of the sport in the public eye. What was any newcomer to conclude from all the bickering except that racing is a deeply divided game that can't even manage to get its two biggest stars into the same starting gate?

While there's still no guarantee that will happen, Zenyatta's return makes it possible. Both camps say they want a showdown, and preferably more than one. At least Zenyatta's final chapter won't be the disappointment from her camp at the Eclipse results.

Perhaps the only less civil and enlightening discussions than the ones over Horse of the Year are those over synthetic racing surfaces. Santa Anita's decision to change its surface after the current winter meeting is a matter of necessity rather than philosophy - it simply cannot handle heavy rain - just as its installation was. Santa Anita began racing on synthetics three years ago not because someone thought it was a good idea to conduct racing on a surface that looks like dirt but plays like grass, but because of a May 2006 mandate from the California Horse Racing Board, one that its proponents at the time now say they regret as premature and based on faulty or incomplete information.

The ramifications of California's conversion to synthetics, from its effect on the Triple Crown trail to the results of Breeders' Cup races, can be debated endlessly, but the emerging consensus is that the artificial surfaces have failed to deliver on their promise. That is not the fault of people who supported the decision with the purest of intentions to improve the sport, or of those track operators who were put into the position of defending a product they were forced to adopt. Even those who have enjoyed great success on synthetics and been highly supportive of California racing, including Zenyatta's handlers and most of the sport's most prominent trainers, now say they would welcome a return to dirt.

Framing the synthetic debate, as some of the surfaces' proponents do, as a choice between white-knight safety advocates and selfish, disgruntled horseplayers is an offensive ploy that obscures the facts. If these new surfaces were clearly safer, everyone would adjust and get behind them, but neither the anecdotal nor scientific evidence suggests that is the case.

Some broad-based comparisons of all synthetic and all dirt tracks have suggested a slightly lower rate of catastrophic breakdowns on the new tracks, but it's bogus to compare a handful of brand new multimillion-dollar installations with dozens of old dirt surfaces that include neglected minor-league and county-fair venues. More apples-to-apples comparisons, such as Saratoga's dirt to Del Mar's Polytrack during parallel world-class summer meetings, suggest that a well-maintained dirt surface at a top-level venue is as safe if not safer.

Maybe Santa Anita will try yet another synthetic surface after its bad experiences with both Cushion Track and Pro-Ride, but every horseman and handicapper I talked with last weekend seemed to be rooting for the surface for which American racehorses have been bred and trained for centuries. The new chairman of California's racing board, Keith Brackpool, has said he is receptive to rescinding the synthetic mandate. Ron Charles, Santa Anita's president, says he expects to make an announcement "very soon."

Santa Anita used to call itself The Great Race Place, and it still is. Fingers crossed, it's about to get even greater.