TRAINERS VOICE CONCERNS OVER SANTA ANITA'S SYNTHETIC SURFACE
by Larry Stewart
Since the opening of Santa Anita Park's winter-spring meet on December 26, concerns about the track’s synthetic Pro-Ride surface have been growing.
There were five breakdowns during the first five days of the meet, and three of those horses involved were euthanized. The other two required surgery.
Trainers have walked the track in recent days and have not liked what they have seen or felt.
The result was an impromptu meeting on Wednesday at the track that involved approximately 50 trainers and Ian Pearse, founder of the Australian company that produced the Pro-Ride surface and who oversaw the renovation of Santa Anita’s faulty Cushion Track surface early last year.
Two trainers equated Santa Anita’s synthetic track to a minefield, and one called for a return to dirt. Pearse, meanwhile, maintained his stance that proper maintenance was the answer.
The meeting was requested by the California Thoroughbred Trainers. The group’s executive director, Ed Halpern, started things off by asking for comments.
The first to speak was trainer Mark Glatt, who said he had walked the track on January 3.
"What I saw was horrifying," he said. "It's like a minefield out there. I've been lucky, but it's coming."
Asked for specifics, Glatt said he could see holes and feel soft spots.
Trainer Darrell Vienna, one of the more outspoken critics at the meeting, said synthetic surfaces started out good but have since been on a decline.
"We're headed for a place as bad or worse than where we were before," he said.
Vienna also complained about inconsistencies in the track. "It's firmer in some spots, softer in others," he said.
Mel Stute, 80, said in the past 40 years he has had 12 fatalities, with nine coming the past two years on synthetic surfaces. Later during the meeting, he got up, mumbled "I've heard enough of this. …” and left.
Veterinarian Rick Arthur, equine medical adviser for the California Horse Racing Board, told the group that fatalities are down since the installation of synthetic surfaces, and so are surgeries.
When questioned about his statistical data, Arthur suggested the trainers as a group could help by supplying data. Halpern said it would be difficult to track but that the group would do what it could in supplying timely reports.
"Some of you must have a case of amnesia," said trainer David Hoffmans, an advocate of synthetic surfaces, referring to all the fatalities and injuries on dirt.
Expressing an opposing view, trainer Bruce Headley equated training and racing on a synthetic surface to swimming across a river full of alligators. "Some of us will survive, some won't," he said.
Vienna was among those who believe that harrowing the track with heavy equipment is not the answer. "Keep the machinery off the track; it's chopping it up," he said.
Pearse, whose main point was proper maintenance, said harrowing was necessary to ensure an equal density throughout the track but admitted the less machinery used on the track the better.
"We need to have a different program now than what we had in the summer," Pearse said, citing weather differences.
The track generally got high marks during the fall Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, which included the Breeders' Cup World Championships on October 24-25.
Pearse also told the group that he and track officials would be more judicious in monitoring the track's density.
Pearse, who pointed out that the United States is the only country where there is training and racing on the same track on the same day, said the amount of daily traffic on a synthetic surface presents a variety of problems.
"It's a whole new ballgame," he said.
When Pearse said there is much that still has to be learned, Vienna said, "Are you saying our horses are guinea pigs?"
Said Pearse: "In essence, yes."
About 1,500 horses train every morning on Santa Anita's main track.
Headley complained it is a different track after 7:30 a.m. than it is earlier in the morning before being trampled by horses.
"I think we should go completely back to dirt,” trainer Henry Moreno said. “This is the worse I've ever seen in my 58 years in racing."
Later, when Pearse was asked if he is getting the proper funding from Santa Anita to do what needs to be done, he said, "I've not asked for any money."
Chimed in Moreno: "Damn fool."
Vladimir Cerin, saying at first he was supportive of the move to synthetic surfaces, also equated the situation to "walking through a minefield."
"The question is, ‘Who will be next?’ " he said. "I don't know how to fix it. I just can't have it the way it is."
Bob Baffert, a critic of synthetic tracks, said there is some good that has come out of the situation
“We've brought science into our sport. We're just not where we want to be."