A Tale of Track Surfaces: Dirt vs. Synthetics

by Greg Melikov

posted on January 26, 2010 in General Discussion | No Comments >>

A fairly new American saying describes Santa Anita Park: What goes around comes around.

Is it really a case of justice served? I believe the more accurate interpretation is the status of Santa Anita’s main track is returning to its original surface after completing some sort of synthetic cycle.

The startling announcement came from track president Ron Charles during a barrage of heavy rains that began Jan. 17 and forced cancellation of three racing days during that week.

The Pro-Ride synthetic surface will be removed at the conclusion of the winter meeting, April 18, and a return to a dirt surface is “very seriously being considered.”

What other surface is there? Can you spell conventional dirt?

I recall when South Florida tracks endured rain aplenty, especially after a tropical storm.

During the 1990s, Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course survived monster rainstorms in the spring and fall, some when I was in attendance.

Calder was forced to close on a couple of Saturdays when hurricanes hit the area, but opened right after they passed – Sunday or Monday.

What did both main tracks have in common? They were conventional dirt that included a liberal amount of sand. They drained exceptional well – and still do.

A downpour could hit several hours before post time and linger until the first or second race, but a sloppy surface soon would be upgraded to good. By the feature race, the track often was fast.

But Santa Anita’s all-weather track, replaced a couple of times the last several years after dumping dirt, hasn’t been able to handle gully washers.

Actually, drainage hasn’t been good since the switch to the original Cushion Track in 2007 when 11 days of racing were canceled that winter.

That prompted officials to overhaul the surface with Pro-Ride material in February 2008 and more extensively that summer. Less than two years later, synthetics will be gone.

The California Horse Racing Board has already signaled it wouldn’t block the change to its statewide mandate four years ago that dirt surfaces must be replaced with synthetics of each track’s choice.

A growing number of trainers have lost confidence in synthetic surfaces, which were supposed to be all weather, consistent and safe, according to the early proponents.

The main thoroughbred tracks in California spent nearly $40 million to make the change. Santa Anita’s bill could be $8 million when it finalizes its new track surface.

Gulfstream and Santa Anita were considered speed tracks when both had dirt. Even after Gulfstream extended its main track to 1 1/8 miles while refurbishing the surface, but stuck to dirt, it continues to favor speed. Not so at Santa Anita during the synthetic years.

Horses with early speed are doing well on Gulfstream’s main track, while the dominating running style is closing at Santa Anita.

For example, 38 percent of the 32 winners at six furlongs from Jan. 3 through Jan. 23 at Gulfstream led at every call, according to Brisnet.com. The number for 112 races last season was 35 percent.

However, Santa Anita’s wire-to-wire jobs in 31 races at six furlongs from Dec. 26 through Jan. 24 were 19 percent. Last year, 21 percent of the 47 winners leading up to the ’09 Breeders’ Cup were in front all the way.

Even at a mile at Gulfstream, 26 percent of 34 runners went wire-to-wire through Jan. 20 compared to last season’s 21 percent of 143 winners.

So far, 19 percent of 16 winners were in front from the start of mile races at Santa Anita. That’s way lower than the 37 percent in 19 contests before the Nov. 6-7 BC races.