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Anyone who saw what the Santa Anita track looked like on Friday afternoon could not have believed it possible that there would be racing the following day. But thanks to a Herculean all-night effort by trackman Richard Tedesco and his crew—and a break in the weather—the Sunshine Millions card came off without a hitch. In front of 28,414 eager fans, who had not seen live racing since the previous Monday (racing was cancelled on Thursday and Friday, then again the day after ‘Millions when another storm came through), Santa Anita staged an excellent 11-race card that included the four local ‘Millions races. While only about $2.8 million was bet on track (the $100 per capita figure is very low, meaning a lot of those partaking in the infield microwbrew festival weren’t exactly pouring it through the windows), overall handle for the day was nearly $15 million. Although these figures pale in comparison to last year’s 36,355 on track patrons (who bet $4.47 million) and overall handle of more than $20 million, it’s still not a bad day considering the uncertainty of the weather and Santa Anita’s understandable reluctance to promote the event too aggressively.

On the racing front, we saw DEAREST TRICKSKI rattle off her eighth win from nine previous starts in dominating the Filly & Mare Sprint; QUITE A BRIDE pull off a mild upset over NASHOBA’S KEY in the Filly & Mare Turf; BOB BLACK JACK set a new world record, winning the Sunshine Dash in 1:06.53 to break IN SUMMATION’S five-day-old track record (by the way, to contrast Santa Anita’s Cushion Track with Del Mar’s Polytrack, In Summation ran the fastest 6-furlongs of the summer meet, going 1:11.06 in the Bing Crosby); and GO BETWEEN sweep wide and inhale his foes in taking the Sunshine Classic. In Florida, BENNY THE BULL cruised in the Sprint; AMERICAN COLONY took the Oaks; Eclipse Award-winning GINGER PUNCH returned to overwhelm the field in the Distaff; and WAR MONGER won nicely in the Turf. “Bicoastal” Bill Mott was the trainer of the day, winning twice at Santa Anita and once at Gulfstream. Someone said that the Florida-breds outpointed Cal-breds once again but, sorry, I wasn’t paying attention to that meaningless angle. Neither was anyone else.

NOTES: Tough day for track announcer Trevor Denman, who misprounced a number of names throughout the day. LARDOG (owned by Larry Edwards, so the obvious pronunciation would have been Lair-Dog) was called Larr-Dog; DEAREST TRICKSKI was called Dearest Trixie all the way around; MR. ELROY became Mr. McElroy at one point; NOW VICTORY was called Victory Now; but his most egregious mistake came in the ESPN2-televised Classic when Denman confused two horses and kept calling the eventual winner (Go Between) ELECTRIFY until the last few jumps. That must have been quite a surprise to Electrify’s connections, especially since he never got closer than eighth at any point in the race…as good as the day was, Kurt Hoover made an excellent point on Sunday’s “Thoroughbred Los Angeles” radio show: with purse money so inflated on ‘Millions Day that it attracts top Grade I-type horses, those runners end up dominating at short prices. It’s almost as if the success of the event has made it a less attractive wagering event—at least that’s what happened this year.

Odds and Ends: Santa Anita CEO Ron Charles had the quote of the meet when talking about two major problems with Santa Anita’s main track: it doesn’t drain and it doesn’t dry…apparently representatives of Cushion Track are no longer returning emails or phones calls from SA…an article in Saturday’s LA Times referred to Santa Anita’s FrontRunner restaurant as the RoadRunner. A friend emailed and wondered if Wile E. Coyote was the maitre’d…with seven days of racing cancelled already, Santa Anita has issued a memo to horsemen concerning its main track renovation plans (click here to see). As of now, the plan is to shut down after racing on Sunday, renovate Monday through Thursday, and be back running by Friday. As we’ve seen before, that is certainly subject to change. Interestingly, the memo talks about a contingency plan for moving the races to Hollywood Park on 48 hours notice…with plans of running extra races each day and the sure request for makeup dates, Kevin Modesti’s commentary in the LA Daily News (http://www.dailynews.com/search/ci_8080294?IADID=Search-www.dailynews.com-www.dailynews.com) was a breath of fresh air. He builds a strong case for less racing dates, while making horse racing a more seasonal sport. He writes that “less could be more, that horses and humans would be better off if they took more days and weeks off, that the general public would care more if it was allowed to miss racing every now and then and anticipate its return.” Makes sense to me.

Finally, handicapper Aaron Hesz, a contributor to “Thoroughbred Los Angeles”, on Sunday recounted a sad story about a 13-year-old mare who was brought back from a nearly six-year layoff to compete in a $2,000 claiming race at Los Alamitos the night before. The sad but not surprising result was that she broke down in the race and had to be euthanized. To view Hesz’s letter to Los Al owner Ed Allred, click here .

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It’s early Wednesday evening and rain has been falling steadily in the Arcadia area for more than two hours. The Santa Anita Cushion Track has been sealed tighter than a drum. The parking lot area behind the backstretch, across from the 3/8ths-pole, is home to tons of Cushion Track material, each in separate mounds of dirt, sand or God Knows What. The new material that will be added to the existing surface is sequestered off to the side, carefully covered with huge plastic tarps held down by sandbags. It looks more like the Irwindale gravel pits than the back parking lot of a world-renowned racetrack.

With more rain expected over the next couple of days, can Santa Anita take a chance on ripping open the sealed track for racing on Thursday and Friday, and possibly endangering its showcase Sunshine Millions event on Saturday? What happens if the track gets saturated as it did in early January (causing three days of cancellation), rendering it useless for Saturday’s 11-race card? Could Hollywood Park be a viable, yet embarrassing, option for hosting Sunshine Millions, one of Santa Anita’s marquee events? With no inside information at all, my guess would be that SA management has to be considering scrapping the next two days of racing in order to save the track for Saturday, hoping the wet weather has cleared out by then. What a mess. It’s safe to say that the 2008 season will not go down as Santa Anita’s finest moment.

NOTES: The Cushion Track is playing ridiculously fast, evidenced by GAYEGO running 1:13.07 in winning the San Pedro Stakes on Sunday (6 furlong split of 1:06.82 set by SEA OF PLEASURE), and IN SUMMATION narrowly defeating BARBECUE EDDIE in Monday’s Palos Verdes while sizzling 1:06.67. As one pressboxer cracked, they should be starting these races with a checkered flag…four wins for trainer Doug O’Neill on Saturday, including a natural hat trick (races 3-5). Not a bad way to break out of a slump, putting O’Neill back on top of the trainer standings, tied with John Sadler at 10 winners, one ahead of Jeff Mullins…bad week for jockeys as Corey Nakatani and Agapito Delgadillo (nasty spill in Saturday’s 7th race) both suffered broken collarbones. Nakatani’s injury occurred in a training accident on Saturday morning and cost him winning rides on both TRICK’S PIC (Saturday’s Tuzla Handicap) and IN SUMMATION. He is expected to be out of action for three to four weeks…CHAMPS ELYSEES overcame a wide trip and did what he had to in winning the San Marcos over five overmatched foes. He wants to run all day (San Juan Capistrano) but doesn’t strike me as a world beater…TRAIL MIX stepped up three levels to win his third straight for Gary Stute and Black Diamond Racing…super field for the Sunshine Millions Classic, by far the strongest in the six-year history of the series…how was PROMISE OF SPRING not disqualified out of Sunday’s last race? She came out and racked up the field in mid-stretch, then came out again near the wire, yet the stewards ruled “several horses were equally contributable”. A better explanation would have been, “It’s the last race of a long 10-race card and it’s too confusing to figure out where to place her, so let’s just leave it alone and get out of here.”

MLK Weekend Attendance Figures, with corresponding ’07 figures in parentheses: Saturday—9,456 (12,494); Sunday—6,759 (7,182); Monday—7,048 (10,681). That’s a 23% decline…Yikes.

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Okay, scrap everything I wrote in the last blog posting (“Cushion Track Debacle”). Although my speculation regarding what Santa Anita was going to do about Cushion Track (along with ensuing timetables) was sound at the time, track President and CEO Ron Charles has now laid out a different plan of attack. In a last-ditch effort to salvage the $10 million-plus Cushion Track (and unable to find enough quality sandy loam to replace the synthetic track with “real” dirt), Charles brought in Ian Pearse, a synthetic-track expert and founder of the Australian company Pro-Ride. Pearse, along with USC civil engineers, spent last week tinkering with samples of the Cushion Track, adding polymers (chemical compounds formed by the union of small molecules, according to Webster’s Dictionary) to the track in hopes of getting water to drain through properly. According to more than one leading trainer who was present, the results were encouraging.

At today’s CHRB meeting, Charles, according to Steve Andersen in DRF, said the polymers would be available within 10 days and work on the strip would likely begin as early as Monday, Jan. 28, weather permitting. The process of adding these polymers and fibers to the track takes four days, so Santa Anita will lose two more days of racing to go along with three previous cancellation days. With Sunshine Millions set for Jan. 26, Santa Anita needs to get lucky with dry weather over the next couple of weeks or be faced with another potential PR disaster. What happens if we get more wet weather between now and the time repair work begins? With one forecast calling for a 40% chance of rain on Monday or Tuesday, Santa Anita management must be on pins and needles.

Synthetics, polymers, civil engineers. Who could have envisioned these words being used in racing language just a few short years ago?

Speaking of Sunshine Millions, the banners are up and sponsorship flags are flying. California vs. Florida. Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park. Sorry, but the whole rivalry between state-breds (and point totals kept for each state as the day progresses) has never caught on. Does the average horseplayer care one iota if the horse he just cashed on was bred in California or Florida? Absolutely not. It’s a fun day with quality horses running for extremely exaggerated purse money. But not one person at the track gives a hoot where these horses were bred.

NOTES: After starting the meet 0-for-30, Joe Talamo busted out of his slump in a big way. The recently-turned 18-year-old won with eight of 25 mounts last week, including a stakes win on FINAL FLING in Sunday’s Santa Ysabel. Not only that, Talamo got a hole-in-one while playing at a local par-3 course…ZENYATTA was awesome again in taking the El Encino while INDIAN BLESSING was straight as a string to take the Santa Ynez in her first start since winning the BC Juvenile Fillies. Based on what we saw here, she has no chance of beating COUNTRY STAR when those two meet in the upcoming SA Oaks…undefeated EL GATO MALO was visually impressive in winning the San Rafael but to me the jury is still out. He ran by exhausted leaders who had dueled through crazy early fractions, so he couldn’t help but win given the way the race came up…ZAPPA continued up the ladder while pulling off the upset in the San Pasqual, further underscoring the weakness of the local handicap division…AIR COMMANDER got the best of the head bob to narrowly defeat tough-as-nails JOHNNY EVES in the San Fernando, second leg of the Strub Series. Tiago ran a decent third in his first start since the BC Classic…WAIT A WHILE outclassed her opponents in the San Gorgonio, giving Todd Pletcher another important stakes win the day after he scored his 2,000th career traning victory…Western Canada win machine MONASHEE showed that she could beat the big girls, wiring her opponents in the Paseana for her 18th win in 24 career starts…favorites are winning at only 28% for the meet, so I’m feeling pretty good about my 32% win percentage (38 top choice winners from 118 races), while showing a healthy flat-bet profit with $286.40 in mutuels…there is a Pick Six carryover of more than $93,000 into Thursday’s card.

With a total of at least five days likely to be cancelled at this meet, here’s hoping Santa Anita management does not approach the CHRB about make-up dates. The idea of six-day race weeks tacked on to an already endless 17-week meet is madness. We already have too many racing dates on the calendar—we certainly don’t need more. Bite the bullet, Santa Anita. Run a few extra races each week to make up the difference, but don’t add more work days to an already-fatigued population of horses, trainers, track employees and horseplayers.

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Three days cancelled so far, with more on the way. The Cushion Track Era at Santa Anita has been an unmitigated disaster, one which will limp to a premature conclusion by the end of this racing week, according to very good sources. I have been told that Santa Anita will begin removing Cushion Track on Monday or Tuesday, skip regularly scheduled cards on Thursday and Friday (Jan. 17-18), then run two or three days of “turf only” cards. All this while feverishly installing a conventional dirt track (which obviously will be approved by the CHRB at their Jan. 17 meeting) in order to get back on a normal racing schedule, presumably by Thursday, Jan. 24.

Given the options, it seems Santa Anita will be able to salvage its meet without catastrophic damage being done. Those options included Santa Anita moving its meet to Hollywood Park, approved by the CHRB but a logistical nightmare almost beyond comprehension; cancelling racing for a four- to six-week period as a new synthetic track (undoubtedly Tapeta) was installed; or trying the “Band Aid” approach of trying to nurse the current surface through to closing day on Apr. 20.

Considering that Hollywood Park had to run its Turf Festival without turf racing a couple years ago, running “all turf” cards for a few days at Santa Anita won’t be the most bizarre thing we’ve ever experienced around here. But it does open the door for a few questions: what happens if it rains on those days?; will the 6 1/2 furlong downhill races have to be scrapped due to work being done on the main track? (if so that would leave 5 furlongs as the only viable sprint distance); where will the horses warm up before each race if the main track is ripped apart? I’m sure these questions have been pondered already, hopefully with corresponding answers.

As things came unravelled last weekend, it seemed like the synthetic track critics came out of the woodwork. Never was the expression “Hindsight is 20/20″ more apropos. People who had raved about Cushion Track at Hollywood Park were now decrying it as the work of Satan. It gave whole new meaning to the popular political term “flip-flopping”. For the record, I have been a proponent of the synthetic surfaces and have written so many times. I think they have been safer, with less catastrophic breakdowns and quicker recovery time for horses, which in turn have led to larger field sizes and better gambling opportunities. They have attracted Eastern barns, such as Todd Pletcher, which otherwise never would have had a presence in California. Are they perfect? No, horses still get injured. Are they maintenance free? Certainly not, evidenced by the almost non-stop work done on the Santa Anita strip since early December. Should they have been mandated by the CHRB with minimal research at its disposal? Probably not.

But if one flashes back to the “killing field” known as Del Mar racetrack in the summer of ’06, was there a better option? Horses seemed to break down on a daily basis, with death counts running in the local papers and animal rights activists ready to picket the place. And that wasn’t the first summer Del Mar had experienced an abnormally high rate of breakdowns. Was it the track surface? Too little time to prepare for a meet after the Fair left town? An incompetent trackman? Perhaps a combination of all three? Who knows. I do know that it was getting to be a sickening experience watching horses snapping their legs and riders going down in gruesome spills. Something had to be done, so I’m not going to flip-flop my opinion of synthetic surfaces because of this recent snafu, caused by human error/incompetence on the part of those who put down Cushion Track in Arcadia.

I may be proved wrong in the long run. Certainly there are good arguments to be made by the other side, including Lenny Shulman’s excellent article in The Blood-Horse magazine. Others are concerned about the long-term health risks of these synthetic particles to horse and human. Some say the CHRB mandate came from an overzealous executive director more concerned about his future legacy than making a well-studied decision. Whatever the case, let’s hope Santa Anita gets the ship righted as quickly as possible, so we can get back to talking about something positive in racing. By the way, has anyone seen P.Val lately?

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If it seems like the Santa Anita meet is already a month old, it’s just your imagination. Sort of. With the holidays falling on funny days (New Year’s Day on a Tuesday, for God’s sake), racetrackers have been thrown all out of sorts. In Southern California we have become accustomed to a Wednesday through Sunday race week, and we don’t particularly care for any deviation. How Santa Anita’s new Thursday through Monday schedule is going to work out is anybody’s guess. But this meet opened on a Wednesday, took Thursday off, then ran Friday-Tuesday, making for six racing dates in seven calendar days. And with 10-race cards on the weekend and New Year’s Day, there were a total of 55 races (compared to 52 during the same time frame last year) carded over those six days. Is Santa Anita loading up on more 10-race cards because they are anticipating losing races/dates when the rain hits and Cushion Track doesn’t drain properly?

Speaking of weather and Cushion Track, did you see the press release sent out by the maker of Santa Anita’s new surface. If not, it starts out like this: “With record rainfall predicted for later this week, Cushion Track experts have thus far failed to come up with a solution for the failure of the synthetic surface at Santa Anita Park to drain properly.” For the entire text, click Cushion Track Press Release. If the predicted storm materializes, do not be surprised if Santa Anita is forced to cancel parts or entire racing cards.

P.Val Saga: It’s old news by now but the Patrick Valenzuela saga took another turn when it was announced Friday that P.Val on Dec. 20 had been arrested for a DUI in Upland. Apparently, Valenzuela crashed his car at a fast food restaurant, then attempted to drive away with two flat tires. At 2:48 a.m. Treading on thin ice with his most recent provisional license, the 45-year-old rider probably will not be able to reapply until his current license runs out at the end of ’08. Rumor has it that even P.Val’s long-time attorney Neil Papiano is ready to wash his hands of the troubled rider.

Perhaps I’m not too sympathetic to the whole “disease” aspect of addiction (who truly knows how much of addiction is beyond the individual’s control and how much is a matter of personal willpower). But I’m a big believer in personal choice and responsibility for one’s actions. I believe we make a choice in what we inhale, ingest and imbibe. So excuse me if I don’t feel sympathy for Pat Valenzuela. He’s obviously got personal demons he’s unable to control, while squandering a career (suspended for eight years at last count) that might have put him at the top of the record books. But instead he became the Steve Howe of our sport, and it appears time has finally run out.

NOTES: David Flores got off to a flying start, winning four races and all three stakes on opening day. He is one winner behind leading rider Rafael Bejarano and tied with Garrett Gomez for second-place in the jockey standings..on the other end of the spectrum, Joe Talamo has not yet won a race at the meet, going oh-fer since switching agents…Doug O’Neill appears to have broken out of his funk, winning four races opening week to be tied with Mike Mitchell in the trainer’s race…tip of the cap to owners Alan Aidekman, Gaylord Ailshie, Tom Harris and trainer Dave Bernstein for retiring TRULY A JUDGE. The 9-year-old gelding earned over $750,000 for those connections and will now enjoy the good life at CERF…despite drawing over 30,000 on opening day, Santa Anita was relegated to a one-column story on page 4 of the L.A. Times sports section. Contrast that anemic coverage to what the Great Race Place received in the Pasadena Star-News. Not just because my graded handicap appears in these papers, but if you live in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and are looking for good horse racing coverage, you need to check out LANG newspapers like the Star-News, L.A. Daily News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Daily Breeze, etc. Weekly columns and stories by Art Wilson, my graded handicap, a consensus box that features top handicappers Jerry Antonucci, Ray Nelson and Terry Turrell, and FULL CHARTS! You won’t find that in the Times….through Tuesday, I’ve picked 20 top choice winners (36%) for $152.60 in mutuel totals, way over the flat-bet mark of $110 (55 races).

My Eclipse Award Ballot: Submitted yesterday, here’s the way I voted: 2-year-old colt or gelding–WAR PASS; 2-year-old filly–INDIAN BLESSING; 3-year-old colt or gelding–CURLIN; 3-year-old filly–RAGS TO RICHES; older horse–LAWYER RON; older filly or mare–GINGER PUNCH; male sprinter–MIDNIGHT LUTE; female sprinter–MARYFIELD; male turf–ENGLISH CHANNEL; female turf–LAHUDOOD; Horse of the Year–CURLIN; breeder–ADENA SPRINGS; owner–SHADWELL STABLES; trainer–TODD PLETCHER; jockey–GARRETT GOMEZ; apprentice–JOE TALAMO.

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