ARCADIA, Calif. -- Santa Anita officials and trainers based here are hoping the sequel to its synthetic surface era is a lot better than the original.
When the track reopens for racing Wednesday, opening day of the Oak Tree meeting, the sport will be conducted on the new Pro-Ride surface that was installed over the summer. It replaced the dysfunctional Cushion Track surface that failed to drain last winter when it rained during the main Santa Anita meeting, costing the track eight days of racing and millions of dollars in repairs and lost wagers.
Training has been conducted on Pro-Ride for the past three weeks, and the surface has received uniformly positive reviews so far. And though everyone involved is optimistic that the surface will perform properly, everyone is being soberly cautious, because the stakes could not be higher.
The Breeders' Cup will be run at Santa Anita on Oct. 24-25, and if there is any chance of getting understandably skeptical horsemen and their horses - including Curlin - from out of town to show up, it has to work. If it does, the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup Classic, which already includes Big Brown, would become the biggest race of the decade. In addition, a successful Oak Tree meeting run on Pro-Ride would likely convince additional trainers to spend the winter here, where the purses are far superior to what will be offered in Florida, New York, Arkansas, or Louisiana.
"I hate to go out on a limb, because we haven't raced on it yet - no one's lost a race on it yet - but I'm very happy with it right now," Ron Charles, Santa Anita's president, said Monday morning. "I'm excited about having a track that will perform well."
Ian Pearse, the founder of Pro-Ride, was the white knight during the darkest days of the winter meeting. In a matter of days last January, he mixed his proprietary material into the Cushion Track surface and got it to drain, salvaging the meet. When the meet ended in April, the decision was made to completely replace the surface. Pro-Ride got the nod. Pearse, who is based in Australia, redid the surface while Del Mar was racing this summer.
"Anyone who was out here for the winter meet saw the catastrophic position we were in," Charles said. "What Ian did was nothing less than miraculous."
If nothing else, the new surface at least looks like dirt. It is a dark brown in color, not the faint yellow of Polytrack, the synthetic surface at Del Mar. Hollywood Park has Cushion Track. Charles said the surface is "87 percent natural dirt," the rest being fibers and the polymer binders that coat the dirt, helping it drain.
"Everything so far I like," trainer Eoin Harty said. "It's a very kind, forgiving surface, with a lot of bounce to it. When a horse puts his foot down, you wait 10 to 15 seconds, and the surface comes back."
Harty said the biggest difference has been the lack of heavy equipment on the track compared to Del Mar.
"They have a break, but only to clean up the manure," Harty said.
According to Charles, Pearse has recommended putting harrows on the track as little as possible. At Del Mar, the track was groomed after almost every race, and by the end of the meet, trainers were complaining the surface was causing foot problems.
"The feet are cold," trainer Leonard Powell said. "And you can't hear them when they train on it in the morning. I've seen the ambulance once in two weeks."
That was Saturday morning, when the filly Tizsweetdreams broke down following a five-furlong drill in 57.60 seconds for trainer John Sadler. She was euthanized.
"It takes a little getting used to, but I haven't had any problems with it," trainer Jim Cassidy said. "I lost a ton of shoes at Del Mar. This has been very consistent. One thing I've noticed is early in the morning, with the dew, it's tight. The sun makes it a little kinder, a little softer."