01/09/2008 12:00AM

Worst flop ever? Tartan Track

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ARCADIA, Calif. - If it is true that misery loves company, the beleaguered bunch dealing with the Cushion Track mess at Santa Anita Park might want to give the U.S. Air Force a call. Structural flaws in the workhorse F-15 fighter jets temporarily grounded the fleet of 700 last November when one of them broke apart during a mock dogfight. Nearly 200 are still in suspicious condition, gathering cobwebs on the tarmac.

An F-15 costs around $48 million, which is a drop in the bucket for the (taxpayer funded) Air Force, even multiplied by 200. The idea that there are better things on which to spend $48 million is shortsighted and downright unpatriotic. Besides, a decommissioned F-15 makes a lovely planter, or a hangar doorstop.

Still, it is natural to let the mind wander. Putting the figure in terms that racetrackers might appreciate, for the price of one F-15 you could get four Cushion Tracks (plus emergency renovations), buy three 2-year-olds named The Green Monkey (at $16 million per monkey), or come close to settling the New York Racing Association's pension fund debt. Difficult choices. Take your time.

In terms of failed racing surfaces, Santa Anita already led the California league. Beginning with a sand-based installation in 1983, more than a decade and at least $12 million was spent a variety of turf courses, laying them down, ripping them out, overseeding and resodding. Remember turf grids? You're lucky if you don't.

They finally got the Santa Anita turf course right, primarily through trial and error, and because management stopped listening to golf course and sports field consultants and focused on the impact of half-ton quadripeds that could tear up the ground at 35 miles per hour. As a result, the current turf course is by consensus California's best, and it will need to be if it is to bear the brunt of Santa Anita's racing program while the main track problem is solved.

Tales are being trotted out of other noteworthy failures. More recently there was the Equitrack meltdown at Remington Park, which opened in 1988 with a synthetic surface that, in the end, could not withstand the Oklahoma heat. Not much can. Equitrack lasted three seasons.

In November 1966, a skeptical Florida racing community submitted to the experiment of Tartan Track, a synthetic surface manufactured by 3M that was gaining popularity at harness tracks. Colleges were also using it for their track teams, and the human athletes were flying.

"The track is faster," University of Alabama track coach Carney Laslie told Time magazine. "We've broken practically every record we had."

In that era, Tropical Park was a sweet little Miami meet, lasting 50 days and leading into the world-class season at Hialeah Park. Some good horses and good horsemen populate pages of Tropical Park history, including Bardstown, who held the track record for 1 1/16 miles, On-and-On, record holder for 1 1/8 miles, and Sikkim, whose local mark of 1:07 3/5 for six furlongs, set in early 1967, was just a tick off the American record held by Zip Pocket.

Such Hall of Fame riders as Bill Hartack, Angel Cordero, Earlie Fires, and Don Brumfield were on the Tropical Park scene when Tartan arrived for the 1966-67 season, and a nine-tenths of a mile Tartan oval was created inside the traditional dirt surface. It was green, but nobody was fooled into thinking it was grass. One race a day was carded on Tartan, but it was not too long before the advantages of the bouncy, all-weather, low-maintenance track were dwarfed by drawbacks.

"It was supposed to be kind of spongy, but it felt more like cement," recalled former rider Tom Wolski, a Tartan pioneer and now a racing writer based in Vancouver, B.C. "And whenever it rained, it would become spotty. Horses would be jumping spots all the time, so they had to wet the whole thing before a race."

There were disposal issues as well, familiar to those who have been watching the fastidious crews picking up horse droppings from Cushion Track and Polytrack surfaces, lest they contaminate the pristine silica sand. In the case of the more resilient Tartan, is was more an issue of contrast - steaming brown on green looked dangerous to the equine eye.

"If they didn't pick it right up, before a race was run," Wolski said, "horses would see the piles and jump."

Wolski added that the one thing a rider definitely did not want to do while riding the Tartan surface was fall off the horse.

"We saw one jock fall on it, named David Jin," Wolski said. "His silks were ripped off and his skin was scraped raw."

Tartan lasted a season, and then in subsequent years it was covered by a layer of conventional sand. When the same technology was used at Calder Race Course, the Tartan material was used as the sub-base for a traditional sand track.

Thus ended the lesson, and always ripe for review. Alas, those who do not learn from history are doomed to step in it again.