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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3 Responses to “Cushion Track Debacle”

  1. Dougefron on January 10th, 2008 10:47 am

    Has anyone in the Santa Anita Press Box even watched the racing up at Golden Gate? How many times in the short meet have you heard Michael Wrona saying a horse went wrong or had to be eased? I have been a casual watcher and it seems I have heard it at least 10 times…and I have seen at least 2 horse break down. The meet is very young at Golden Gate and with at least 2 breakdowns, what is going to happen when that track gets older. Ass seen at EVERY other synthetic racetrack, the longer it is in the more breakdowns occur. There were 5 alone at the last Keeneland meet on Polytrack. They had 1 meet with 5 breakdowns on the regular dirt surface. Del Mar was relatively spotless in the afternoon for the first few weeks, yet towards the end of the meet more and more breakdowns did occur. The wax surfaces can not withstand many foreign substances for a period of time before breaking down, for example horse and sometimes human bodily fluids. Its too bad Dick Shapiro had a hard on while mandating something that was barely researched, with most of the research coming from the companies who sell it. Talk about collusion! I am not a big fan of Bruce Headley but this is one topic he is spot on with. Sandy loam tracks have worked forever, Cushion track at Santa Anita lasted a few months.

  2. brooklynbackstretch on January 10th, 2008 11:42 am

    Nice post on this complicated topic. I’ve been painted as a synthetic skeptic and post about this issue regularly, but my main concern has been the rush to adoption and the lack of any serious research on the benefits/drawbacks, rather than any hard opinion on synthetics vs. dirt. It seemed premature for the CHRB to mandate a complete overhaul of tracks before getting any hard data on surfaces.

    As you pointed out, Lenny Shulman and his Blood-Horse colleagues did excellent work in their synthetics issue, and one of the most intriguing comments I read was the belief that re-doing the underlying track made more difference than whatever surface was put on top of it. Will be interesting to see what happens next at SA.

  3. Doug A. on January 8th, 2009 11:06 am

    Well, so much for synthetic surfaces, eh, with the current break-downs
    in Calif and Ky? I have seen it time and again, since the first Equi-track
    fad of the 1990s where optimistic praise is heaped on such surfaces only for
    the new surfaces to fail miserably with more and more use.

    I swear as contradictory as it sounds, I think our thoroughbred tracks
    are too deep with too much “cushion”. This type of going is hard to maintain
    properly and is hard for a horse to maneuver in during a race. Hoof
    break-over is difficult which can lead to all type of catastrophic injuries.
    I mean, if you have actually led a horse to the paddock over a typical race
    track, you know it is not easy going even for a human foot, let alone a
    horse’s. It’s even worse in mud. I still remember taking horses over to the
    paddock at Hawthorne and trying to step through the deep going. Ugh. I know,
    I know—-on top of one, galloping or working one on a well manicured deep
    track with plenty of cushion with no hoof sounds drifting up to the rider or
    over to the watcing trainer is a magical and reassuring experience during a
    ride, but is it really the way to go? I also say that though there is no
    data gathered in the long ago past about break-downs which we can compare to
    modern times, the old timers I have talked to seem to suggest break-downs
    were far less a problem in their past than as now. Perhaps this is true and
    perhaps this has to do with deeper modern track surfaces versus
    characteristically less deep and harder tracks seen back in the old days,
    particularly as seen in Fair racing.

    I suspect a combination of deep surfaces and less training/racing of the
    horse itself, is the cause of our current break-downs. If you start a colt
    on a “hard” track from start to finish, bone does remodel to handle such a
    surface. As anyone knows, if you take a horse that is conditioned in deep
    going to a harder surface, most of the time, no problem, but you do the
    opposite, take a horse use to being conditioned on a hard surface to a
    deeper track, WATCH OUT! Also, look at the beauty of the turf! It has some
    cushion with easy break-over of the hoof–emphasis on easy break-over!

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