The day that Del Mar opened, the San Diego Union-Tribune ran an interview with Richard Shapiro, former chairman of the California Horse Racing Board. Shapiro told Hank Wesch that he rushed to ultimatum a few years ago when he and most of the other board members forced all of Southern California's thoroughbred tracks to convert from dirt strips to synthetic surfaces. "In 20-20 hindsight," Shapiro said, "I would not have pushed for a mandate. You ask me if I'm disappointed (in the new tracks) and, in a word, the answer is yes."

The racing board's directive was expensive, about $40 million expensive. These are not tracks that are exactly swimming in profits. Bay Meadows, because it was soon to go out of business, wrangled a waiver, but Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Golden Gate Fields followed the Shapiro-led board's marching orders and all installed the surfaces. Any one of those tracks could have pushed the envelope and said it wouldn't run under the burden of all that added expense, and it's likely the racing board would have blinked. Instead, typical of racing, this foursome lost any chance of getting a group discount by buying from different manufacturers. Well, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita had the same surface, Cushion Track, for a while, but Santa Anita's oval didn't work out, it sued the maker and now horses there run over something called Pro-Ride. Del Mar's is a Polytrack surface, and Golden Gate has Tapeta.


The board's decision to go synthetic was a knee-jerk, one-size-fits-all answer to severe breakdown problems at Del Mar and the Northern California tracks. In 2006, there were 18 fatalities at Del Mar alone, 14 of them on the dirt track. The first year for Polytrack at Del Mar was 2007. Strangely, the racing board didn't require Los Alamitos, the only quarter horse track in the state, to switch to synthetic. Los Alamitos has sometimes had a high breakdown rate, and runs more dates than any track in California.

"(Synthetic tracks) have lessened the fatalities, but have not proved to be what we thought they would," Shapiro said in the newspaper interview. "They require more maintenance and have not been as consistent as we anticipated. And while they have lowered fatalities, there are indications of problems with injuries that aren't fatal. Clearly there's a divided constituency about them. I still believe they have promise and hope. To have done nothing and to have the tracks continue to be harder and less safe would have been unconscionable."

In California and elsewhere, Shapiro will be known as the poster boy for the synthetic-track era out West, no matter what he says. During the interview, he tried to make a case that all segments of the industry were behind the change, but I remember it otherwise. There were suggestions from some trainers that half the money could have been spent at Del Mar in a major renovation of the dirt track. There was only a five-minute discussion period, tops, before the vote was taken at the racing board meeting to mandate the artificial surfaces. I walked out of the room shaking my head. They've just approved something that's going to drastically change the way races are run in an entire state, and that's all the public comment they needed? I wondered if the issue had been diced and shredded in some smoke-filled room before the board ever met.

He probably doesn't need to be reminded, but Shapiro shouldn't forget that one member of his own board at the time, Jerry Moss, didn't follow the other commission sheep to approval. Moss, whose horses have included Giacomo, Tiago and Zenyatta, was the most prescient man in the room. "I'll just vote 'present,'" he said. "I think these new tracks need much more study before we do all this."

I haven't heard much about this lately, but the study, or at least the announcement that there would be a study, came after the new tracks were already laid down. The board, which is crying poverty like most state agencies in California these days, reportedly allocated $300,000 to find out if they did the right thing. It's bass ackwards, as my stepfather used to say.

On opening day at Del Mar, a horse broke down, had to be euthanized and his jockey, the talented Rafael Bejarano, suffered severe facial injuries and has undergone surgery. Three days before that, there was an equine training fatality at Del Mar. The racing fatality was an 8-year-old gelding who had seen his ups and downs, including a 14-month period in 2007-08 in which he didn't run at all. Obviously a horse with problems, but Mi Rey was a hard knocker when able--he ran 37 times, won 10 races and earned almost $200,000.

Del Mar could go the rest of the meet without catastrophic incidents, or with more fatalities it could end up far, far out on the synthetic-track limb. "If most of the industry wants to go back to dirt, they should go back to dirt," Shapiro said before opening day. In other words, follow your neighborhood racing board, but only at your own risk.