Bruno With the Works Dishes on Santa Anita's New Dirt
In a track-issued press release, Superintendent Dennis Moore identifies the surface as “El Segundo Sand,” a mix of silt and clay.
“El Segundo Sand is naturally occurring, and we won’t have to mix it with any other material, which is best case.” Moore says.
The new surface was seen as a needed improvement once Santa Anita added racing following the shuttering of crosstown Hollywood Park. El Segundo Sand is already in place locally, having been used in construction projects at Los Angeles International Airport and at Los Alamitos Racecourse, which like Santa Anita added dates recently and is overseen by Moore, who also oversaw the dirt surface at Hollywood before that plant went synthetic in 2007.
El Segundo is a contrast to more popular surfaces that feature a sand and clay mix. Saratoga, for example, has a sandy loam cushion with a 10-inch clay, silt sand base while the nearby Oklahoma Training Track has just a sandy loam cushion and base that allows it to drain better than the main track since clay retains water longer to allow a more naturally moist surface.
Churchill Downs, which annually stages the world’s most famous horse race the Kentucky Derby, also has a sandy loam cushion main track with a 12-inch clay base. The new Keeneland main track is sand, silt, and clay all native to Kentucky.
The challenge for Moore will be to make sure Santa Anita’s surface contains organic materials to maintain balance and bounce. A track with no bounce for the equine athlete will lead to joint injuries, bone bruising, and chipped ankles and knees. A deeper than normal surface or a beach-like condition leads to soft tissue injuries, such as tendon, suspensory and muscle strains.
Humans can relate. Whether you run on the beach or on cement, we prefer proper footing.
The most recent Santa Anita surface, which replaced the synthetic Pro Ride, lacked organic material and could be highly volatile depending on weather. When dry and brittle it would favor horses inside with speed. A dry, brittle track can be looser than normal making it hard on horses to get good footing to generate late speed. Thus, it seemed speed was on a conveyor belt. Santa Anita at times seemed to be a tale of two tracks.
Santa Anita can be tricky to deal with, in the past the track's overhang shadowed the main track from the eighth pole to past the wire from the sun, and it caused as much as a 7-to-10-degree difference in the soil from backstretch to front side. Backstretch exposed to the warmth of the sun could be brittle, dry and harder than the more moist stretch run, often causing two different surfaces.
A brittle backstretch would aid front-running horses, as they could skip over the fast soil until the stretch where the track would become deeper. Most say that aids closers, but their action could also be incorrect, so speed could dominate until the eighth pole where all runners struggle, which leaves the front runner on top.
Previous Santa Anita surfaces were also at the mercy of Santa Ana conditions that could affect the track’s ability to maintain water consistently. Former Superintendent Steve Wood said that 11% water content in the soil was optimal but that 12% could make the track sloppy. That’s not a lot of margin, but a swing in the opposite direction because of the Santa Ana winds and heat could make the track too dry. Moore says the new track addresses this issue.
A great example of the power of mother nature on a track surface happened in the mid 1990s at Santa Anita on a beautiful fall day with comfortable temperatures that was interrupted by a Santa Ana wind and temperature increase. The fourth race was on turf, meaning there was about an hour between dirt events in the third and fifth races. The Santa Anita conditions made the track brittle, dry, and fast, as the maintenance crew could not keep up with the track’s thirst for water, and three-year-old $25,000 claimers went six furlongs in 1:09.00—an incredibly fast time for this level.
The change was short-lived, however, and by the time horses returned to the main track for race 7 following a turf event, the raw time was closer to par.
No question the fifth race that day was an anomaly. I was doing “groundwork” for Jerry Brown and ThoroGraph.com that day. My job was to note any changes in conditions: wind speed, direction, etc. The rest of the card was normal other than that particular time and place around the fifth race. Of course, some figure makers got the fifth race wrong and completely inflated the winning horse’s number in particular. When he returned in a $50,000 claiming race—a double jump on the Southern California class ladder—he finished unplaced as a heavy favorite off a gaudy figure.
If you have stood on the apron at Santa Anita during the winter, you have felt how the cold temperatures occur there overnight. It is about 10 degrees colder than any other part of the Great Race Place.
As a horseplayer, we almost have to learn how the track plays when water content is equal all the way around. Does the new “El Segundo Sand” dry in unison despite overhang shielding the warm sun from stretch run? Will its base drain water and dry quicker with or without sunlight on the front side?
Indeed, Wood’s chief complaint when he superintended the surface was that he routinely dealt with two different main tracks every day.
According to Bruno With The Works correspondents, the main track had been loose with horses struggling late to finish since returning from Del Mar. As the track has settled and tightening up closer to the meeting, however, they are finishing in stride and closing ground with ease, though as morning works linger the surface does get a little deep.
However, with continued adjustments, my guys expect the track to play fair for all, and there is talk that this surface might be the best yet at Santa Anita. As the Breeders’ Cup slogan says, “The Best Is Yet To Come.”
“The best surfaces around the country are all made of naturally occurring soils that are indigenous,” Moore said.
Keeping the main track seven and safe is only part of the job, however, as playing politics with trainers is a must. For some, the surface is too fast while others claim it’s too slow. The balancing act between a safe track and pleasing everyone might be a bigger challenge than the Santa Ana winds.