Old as dirt

Updated: October 13, 2010, 4:41 PM ET
By Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com

Is Santa Anita's new traditional dirt surface the remedy to California racing's many woes -- or an ill-advised return to the past?

Santa Anita surface
Benoit PhotoThe demolition phase of the Santa Anita track overhaul is underway.
ARCADIA, Calif. -- There were breakdowns that season, many of them. Horses fell in the mornings, slender forelegs buckling. They fell in the afternoons, wiry tendons and string-thin ligaments ruptured by the strain. Crowds at the racetrack turned away and grooms carried halters back to the barns, mournfully empty-handed. It was 2005 in Southern California and something had to change.

"We were at this point where, if a guy said, 'Run on mattresses, run on chewed-up tires, it'll make things better,' we'd go, 'We're in,'" Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert recalled.

Baffert was among those who lost runners to almost inexplicable accidents over one of the old dirt surfaces in Southern California, and when he heard the claims of synthetic salesmen -- that the surfaces were safer for horses, easier to consistently maintain -- he backed the California Horse Racing Board's decision to mandate a switch. It was handed down to major racetrack operators in May of 2006: Get rid of the old dirt and change to synthetics by the end of 2007, or risk losing racing dates in 2008.

"I was all for synthetic surfaces when they first came here," Baffert said. "But then I realized, 'Oh boy, this is not good.' And by then it was too late."

***

The stable areas at Santa Anita are vacant now, silence broken only by the occasional pounding of hammers and the rumble of heavy machinery. Maintenance is being done to the barns on the backside, but the real repairs began Monday morning as skip loaders rolled out onto the wide old oval and the synthetic surface was piled up, ready to be loaded into dump trucks and carried away.

It's a hodgepodge of materials, both natural and artificial. There are remnants of the original Cushion Track surface -- sand, rubber and synthetic fibers all coated in wax and installed over a porous asphalt base. That product was initially installed at the end of 2007 and exhibited severe drainage issues, forcing Santa Anita to cancel 11 of the first 33 racing days of its winter meeting and many more in the following months.

There's also some leftover coarse sand, added by track maintenance crews in a failed effort to stabilize the saturated surface, and clay that was included in an attempt to bring stability as well. Finally, there are polymeric binding materials and fibers added by Ian Pearse, founder of the synthetic surface company Pro-Ride -- first in corrective measures that allowed the track to conclude its early 2008 meeting, then in a major overhaul done midyear.

In a nutshell, the problem with the synthetic track at Santa Anita was inconsistency. It was the same issue Californians had faced with the old dirt track, which, by 2007, wasn't even 100 percent dirt. That surface, taken out when the synthetic track was put in, had been augmented with wood products -- what trainer Darrell Vienna calls "the recipe for particle board."

"We added particles of wood to clay and water and compressed them, and that addition of wood chips, I believe, destroyed the track's natural balance," Vienna said. "That reached its crescendo of detriment in the late 1990s, and by 2004 you got to this point where they'd manipulated the surface to such a degree that it was unstable, no longer safe."

But the 2008 Pro-Ride installation, initially expected to cure Santa Anita's newest surface woes, brought rumbles of dissent from trainers and fans at the beginning of the 2009 season when five horses broke down in the first five days of racing that year. Three of those horses were euthanized. And in late 2009, on Cal Cup Day, two runners in the feature race were pulled up, one put down with career-ending injuries. In spite of two successful editions of the Breeders' Cup World Championships run over the surface, it was clear the material was barely holding together.

"What we've learned is that these tracks are constantly devolving," Vienna said. "Every effort is in trying to reinvigorate them. They age, and unlike fine wine, when they age they don't get better, they get worse."

By the beginning of 2010, disenchantment had set in.

***

Jerry Moss remembers the day, four years ago, when an infamous 4-0 vote by the CHRB went through to mandate the installation of synthetic surfaces. He's glad he abstained. The atmosphere in the room was charged, electric, buzzing with support of the change. But for Moss there were too many unanswered questions.

I think it was well-intentioned, that the people really did believe it was going to be a safer racetrack, but it didn't turn out to be that way.

-- Zenyatta owner Jerry Moss
"I think it was well-intentioned, that the people really did believe it was going to be a safer racetrack, but it didn't turn out to be that way," he recalled. "The people supporting it at that time were the chairman and the board of the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers and his board of directors, plus some other very well-known trainers in the room. I thought this was happening very quickly, a little too fast for such a major move. But there was a tremendous amount of support for it."

Moss, a longtime California thoroughbred owner best known for his campaign of the unbeaten mare Zenyatta, wanted to wait until further data was available on the synthetics. He also believed the CHRB was out of line, instructing stakeholders to spend millions of dollars to change their track within a certain amount of time. And he could see how the change would make California runners less competitive in key Triple Crown races, since big East Coast tracks, such as Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont Park, weren't changing their surfaces.

"There were a number of factors that pushed the decision forward," he said. "Del Mar had just experienced a very difficult season and everyone wanted to do whatever they could to help create a safer environment for the horses. We were also told by people selling all these different kinds of synthetics that you didn't have to water it, all you had to do was lay it out there and it would sort of take care of itself, so not only was it safer for the horses, but it would last without tremendous maintenance."

The next four years proved otherwise, and in June of 2010 when a year worth of data from the Jockey Club's equine injury database revealed no statistical difference in the fatality rate for horses starting on dirt tracks versus synthetics, the push to install a new dirt track began.

***

Listen to Moss and Baffert and you'll hear a general consensus, hope that this return to dirt -- announced by MI Developments' controlling owner, Frank Stronach, in August of 2010 and implemented this month at Santa Anita -- will mark a return to "the good old days" for California racing.

"A lot of the big owners have left here," Baffert said. "There's some big guys that are running horses back east. They live in California and they send their horses back east. Guys like Wayne Hughes and Jess Jackson, who won't even run a horse here now. I think the dirt will help bring these owners back, and it'll help a lot of trainers."

"When Santa Anita opens on Dec. 26 with their new racetrack, that's going to be one of the greatest events in our California history," Moss remarked. "It'll be a rebirth of California racing at the highest form and a successful, happy, nondivisive meet."

But not everyone is happy with the bad rap synthetic surfaces have earned throughout the process. Trainer Eoin Harty -- who spent 14 years in California as an assistant to trainer John Russell and Baffert before going out on his own to maintain stables on both coasts -- believes the surface at Santa Anita would have been functional if it had been installed correctly in the first place.

"It's been a comedy of errors from the very beginning," he said. "Nobody ever blamed the errors; they just blamed the surface."

Santa Anita didn't put the track in properly, he said. They tried to do it on the cheap, substituting local materials for components that should have been imported from England. Santa Anita is currently suing Cushion Track for $8.4 million in damages, and the lawsuit alleges that the company was aware in 2007 that the materials it provided for Santa Anita's synthetic surface were not consistent with the materials supplied to nearby Hollywood Park. Harty believes the decision to go back to dirt is yet another hasty one -- no better than the decision that got them into this trouble in the first place.

"There's this very vocal group that's in a rush to go back to dirt, and they've got their wish, we're going back to dirt," he said. "But my main concern is, really, that they don't have enough time to do it properly -- and if something goes wrong they don't have time to rectify it before the start of the season."

***

On Monday, Darrell Vienna drove up from Fairplex Park to check on the progress at Santa Anita. There were bulldozers just inside the quarter pole and mountains of the synthetic surface piled up all around. The smell of chemicals hung heavy in the air.

The project is supposed to take less than two months. Once the piles of material have been removed, rocks that top the faulty drainage system beneath the track will also be taken away. This should be done by Oct. 30, when the entire oval will be covered with an eight-inch base of decomposed granite, which should be done by Nov. 13. This base will be compacted and topped with a surface layer of sand and clay mixed by Vulcan Materials in nearby Irwindale. With a target completion date of Dec. 1, if all goes according to plan, by Dec. 8 horses will be skipping over a traditional surface once again.

When Stronach announced the track's decision to move back to dirt, it was a move the CHRB had no choice but to support. But in order to remain in compliance with CHRB regulations, the track had to petition the governing organization to issue a waiver to this mandate. And that waiver will only be granted after the top layer of the new track surface undergoes a variety of tests to be overseen by the CHRB.

Project manager Ted Malloy, a straight-talking 76-year-old with more than 38 years of experience in track maintenance, said passing those tests and meeting all deadlines won't be a problem. The horsemen will have roughly three weeks to try out the surface before racing begins on Dec. 26.

"I have only one concern, and that's the safety of the horse and rider," Malloy said. "To make the track safe, the No. 1 issue is to make it consistent. We'll put a track in there that meets those expectations, and if the weather is good we'll finish by Dec. 1, because we have the team and the resources and we'll do what it takes to get it done."

Ultimately no one knows whether this decision will prove to be right or wrong. Only time will tell. But the horsemen remain hopeful because that's about all they can do.

"I think this is going to give racing here another chance," Vienna said. "What people have to realize is that we're not going back to what we had. We're going forward to a better track, not going back to the dirt that brought about the need for synthetics. I'm just hopeful because, at this point, I don't really feel confident in anyone being a true expert."

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.