So Long Synthetic - By Dan Liebman

Living in Kentucky, I don’t often attend the races in California. But I certainly see many simulcast races. And I definitely have my opinion on synthetic surfaces.

Attending the 2009 Breeders’ Cup, I found myself dumbfounded by how much water was being put on the track between races. I thought having a synthetic surface meant less maintenance and little need for water? One of the selling points, as I understood it, was you would never have an off track because of the excellent drainage. Putting an excessive amount of water on a surface upon which it would drain through quickly seemed, well, both silly and illogical.

Fast forward to Jan. 18, when I heard the races were cancelled at Santa Anita because of rain, followed quicky by the word that Santa Anita may return to a dirt surface. Now Santa Anita has cancelled the races for Jan. 21, though with the amount of rain hitting the Southern California area, this might have happened no matter what the surface.

Despite the frustration surely felt by track management, and the inconvenience to trainers, it was hard not to laugh.

Even those who support synthetic surfaces—and this is certainly not a total condemnation of them—understand how wise it would be to replace Santa Anita’s surface with dirt, which should have been done in 2008 when the initial problems caused the track to be ripped up and replaced.

The California Horse Racing Board, which had mandated the installation of synthetic surfaces at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar, would have allowed Santa Anita to go back to dirt. Yet the decision was made to give synthetic another try.

Frank Stronach, whose Magna owns Santa Anita, has never been a fan of synthetic surfaces. I have always thought Stronach correct when he said, parenthetically, “Spent the same amount of money on your dirt surface and you will have a good surface.”

How Stronach let them convince him to “re-install” a synthetic surface I don’t know.

Perhaps it is that synthetic surfaces simply work better in areas with colder climates (such as Woodbine and Turfway Park), or places with a small number of racing dates and small horse populations (like Keeneland). Again, I don’t know.

But I do know the surface at Santa Anita was a disaster and a decision to return to dirt seems to make sense.

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