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Dr. Phil couldn't help Santa Anita

8/20/2010

Sometimes divorce becomes the best option. Like two bickering adults who can no longer get along, even for the best interest of their children, a clean break sometimes works out best for all involved.

That's why, contrary to what you may think, I was pleased to learn Wednesday that Santa Anita kingpin Frank Stronach had decided to remove the track's current Pro Ride synthetic surface and return to natural dirt. It was a move that had to be done, and the only measure that could begin repairing a broken relationship.

As someone who has written extensively about synthetic surfaces and has been on the payroll as a statistical consultant to both Keeneland and Del Mar, it may surprise some that I'm in favor of this move at Santa Anita. I'm not here to endorse the pros and cons of the footings, that's not my forte. My work with the tracks always has been to develop ways to help horseplayers in their handicapping process, an extension of fan education.

Whether it be dirt, Polytrack, Pro Ride, or Post Shreaded Wheat under the horses feet, I want safe conditions for the horses, and I want racetracks to succeed, especially the ones most important to the national success of horse racing. And that certainly includes Santa Anita.

Stronach and Santa Anita management did not marry into the synthetics family on free will. It was an arranged marriage, mandated three years ago by the California Horse Racing Board. And while the CHRB had good intentions in demanding its state's racetracks go in what was perceived to be a safer direction, this marriage at Santa Anita simply did not work.

In the end, no one trusted what the next person was saying. Even facts became emotional; and when you have that, you're done communicating.

Like most relationships, there's plenty of blame to be spread. The synthetics era at Santa Anita was doomed on many fronts. Various blends of commercial and rigged synthetic surfaces were mixed and matched in a never-ending cluster of science and public relations. Maintenance men and women worked seemingly daily to appease horsemen, handicappers and Mother Nature, three areas you're never going to please. Much of it while flying blind.

If you've ever read a warranty on anything you've had to assemble or install, there's a good reason why companies are removed of liability if you don't properly assemble and care for their goods. What was done at Santa Anita over the past three years did not fit snuggly into any how-to manuals; that much we know. Meanwhile, constant changes in manpower and materials have only confused what's really even under debate.

Every time a problem arose, one solution or another came from uniformed parties that led to a situation where drainage systems, hybrids of surface materials and intentions soon did not mirror what anyone originally set out to establish. Whatever surface and drains currently reside on the acreage in Arcadia, Calif., no one really has a handle on the horribly stirred pot of soup.

It's time to start over at Santa Anita. If you're going to step back from a bad situation, it's always best to go somewhere familiar. And when you're talking about familiarity in American horse racing, specifically track maintenance crews, horsemen and horseplayers, they will find familiarity in natural dirt racing.

No matter where you stand in support or opposition to synthetic surfaces, Santa Anita did not have the time to work through its compounded, runaway mess, even if a good ending was possible. Horsemen and horseplayers had lost patience, and it's a dire time in thoroughbred racing as it searches to wrap a bear hug on its remaining share of the entertainment and gambling marketplace.

The interesting next step will be the reaction of other synthetic surface racetracks to Santa Anita's return to dirt. From most all accounts, the surfaces have performed well in places like Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Canada, Illinois, other parts of California, and even across town from Santa Anita in Los Angeles. Several surfaces produced by Polytrack, Tapeta and Cushion Track brands have not had the same nightmares as Santa Anita, for whatever ecological or hands-on reasons.

It's true that Del Mar and Keeneland have been hard-hit by public relations complaints and some high-profile trainers flicking media jabs. But neither track has suffered the loss in racing days like Santa Anita, much less an entire meet picking up and moving like the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meet did Thursday when it was announced that it was hitch-hiking to Hollywood Park.

Hollywood Park also is a synthetic track, lest we forget, comprised of a Cushion Track surface that once also covered Santa Anita. But you don't hear the complaints at Hollywood that you do at Santa Anita, Keeneland or Del Mar. Part of that, to be sure, is because the Hollywood racing action does not resonate as important with horsemen and fans. We didn't have two Breeders' Cup on Hollywood's Cushion Track. While its race meetings are respectable, Hollywood has been relegated in many situations to being the calendar spot when many big barns rest up for Del Mar's summer or Santa Anita's winter-spring stands.

With Oak Tree now moving to Hollywood, that track now goes under a microscope like it has never felt in the synthetics era. How will the Cushion Track hold up with increased traffic daily for workouts, much less increased scrutiny for every race, which will include a full plate of major graded stakes races? Meanwhile, the Keeneland meeting runs concurrently in Kentucky with an equally impressive racing menu, and while the track has been criticized for some quirky stakes results, it's safety record has been nearly bulletproof.

My inclination is that Santa Anita's move to dirt actually will take some heat off the public relations hatred toward all synthetic tracks. In smaller doses at Keeneland and Del Mar, horsemen and horseplayers will continue solid support and those meets will bounce back when the economy rebounds in general. My guess is that the public relations battle would follow similarly.

But there's no doubt the public relations had become so diseased in specific regard to Santa Anita's synthetic surface that no engineer -- much less a marriage counselor -- was going to fix it. The husbands and wives in this spat both got what they wanted, a fresh start with a return to familiarity. Stronach's company, Magna, will pay the alimony to the tune of several more million dollars in reconstruction.

Now it's up to the management, horsemen and handicappers to do something with that fresh start. If all parties go out of their way to support Santa Anita this winter-spring meeting, then this could turn out to be one of those divorces that worked out best for all involved. Let's hope it does.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the owner of the handicapping-based website HorseplayerNOW.com. You can e-mail Jeremy at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com.