03/26/2008 11:00PM

Waiting for the next new track


RCADIA, Calif. - Win or lose in Saturday's $100,000 Tokyo City Cup, the 6-year-old gelding Zappa deserves some sort of recognition for dancing every major dance for the older main-track division during the current Santa Anita meet.

It wasn't easy, either. Zappa had to be ready to run in the San Pasqual Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on both Jan. 5, when it was originally scheduled, and Jan. 12, when it was actually run after the first, dramatic failure of the synthetic Cushion Track surface to handle a winter rainstorm, causing a cancellation of racing. He won anyway.

Trainer John Sadler was prepared to run Zappa right back on Feb. 3 in the nine-furlong San Antonio Handicap, but once again a little rain ruined the track, and racing was called off. Six days later the San Antonio was brought back, but Zappa went off form and finished a dull seventh.

Sadler suggested his horse might have bounced from his big effort in the San Pasqual. Perhaps, if you buy that sort of reasoning. On the other hand, if my keepers kept telling me to show up for work and then kept pulling the plug, I might be tempted to sulk like a teenager and merely go through the motions, if only out of silent protest.

Zappa redeemed himself to a degree by running a respectable fifth in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, which was both scheduled and presented on March 1. Now he is back for one last swing, this time at the revolutionary new distance of 1 1/2 miles, which is supposed to set the stage for the new Breeders' Cup Marathon at 1 1/2 miles on the Santa Anita main track on Oct. 25.

Stage. That's a laugher. Zappa is the poster child among older runners this season for surviving the many permutations of the synthetic Santa Anita surface. Dating back to his win in allowance company during the Oak Tree meet, when the surface was freshly laid, Zappa was greeted by different conditions each time he appeared. And by the time the Breeders' Cup is run, there will be yet another new surface in place at Santa Anita, if management makes good on its latest vow.

There is a degree of bitter irony in the fact that the current surface - a mulligan stew of old Cushion Track material, emergency elements added in January, and then the polymer makeover of February - has been performing pretty well. Unfortunately, it is impossible to replicate and a challenge to maintain, which means it will eventually degenerate into the tragic uncertainty awaiting such orphans.

When Santa Anita's president, Ron Charles, conceded that a return to dirt was on the table, along with a variety of synthetics, the California Thoroughbred Trainers Association was urged by a number of its members to conduct a survey on the issue. The results, though hardly scientific, leaned firmly in favor of retaining some sort of synthetic surface. Of the 80 Santa Anita-based trainers stating a preference, 56 of them (or 70 percent) preferred synthetic over dirt.

Sadler, who topped the trainer standings at the start of this week's racing, was among the 30 percent indicating a preference for dirt. His position, however, is not that simple, and reflects the weakness of such a poll. While the survey offered room for comments, the selection of answers left no wiggle room between the choice of dirt or synthetics (other than a "no preference" option).

"Based on what I've seen of synthetic surfaces so far, the technology and the maintenance still needs a lot of work," Sadler said. "I'm not sure there's been a synthetic track yet that hasn't had some sort of problem."

Cool-headed and articulate, Sadler is the kind of horseman who lends credibility to any issue. His response to the survey question was not an hysterical rebuke of synthetic surfaces. It was merely what could be viewed as a reasonable reaction to the abject failure of the Cushion Track surface at Santa Anita, the ongoing maintenance difficulties with the Cushion Track surface at Hollywood Park, and the fluctuating textures of the Polytrack installed at Del Mar last summer.

The mantra of synthetic-track supporters is that the worst synthetic track is still better than the best dirt track. This is glib, and it might even be true, at least according to considerable anecdotal evidence. Veterans such as Hall of Famer Ron McAnally concede the point even in the face of a setback like the cannon bone fracture of his stakes-class filly Izarra.

"There's no doubt in my mind that a synthetic surface keeps these horses sounder," McAnally said, less than an hour after Izarra had been vanned off the Santa Anita main track. "I mean, the ambulance used to be out here all the time in the morning, but not any more. Then it has to happen to our nice filly."

Southern California horsemen, trainers, and owners have spent the past year and a half as guinea pigs in a real-time experiment that has no established control. First betrayed by a degeneration of dirt surfaces, then confounded by a variety of synthetics, they have hung tough and plowed through. Whatever decision Santa Anita management makes for its next adventure, synthetic or otherwise, it needs to acknowledge the toll being taken on the men and women on the front line, caring for the animals who make the game run.