Ratzky, who has always brought a warped sense of humor to the table, thinks Richard Shapiro's backyard could be a location for the Oak Tree races. Another possibility posited by Ratzky is the Harris Ranch in Fresno County. He is being preposterous, of course. Shapiro, when he was chairman of of the racing board, became the father of synthetic racing surfaces in California. That legacy is no longer worth much on the open market. Harris was a member of the Shapiro-led board that force-fed the synthetics on every major thoroughbred track in the state. By one estimate, $40 million was poured into the projects, some of it money that Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields never had, if their subsequent concessions to bankruptcy proceedings are any criteria.
Most of Santa Anita's $5-million cost would have been paid by rent and commissions from the Oak Tree meet, which has been a fixture there since 1969. But the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the state trainers' group both said that the conversion to dirt might take more time than what Santa Anita has between now and Oak Tree's start date of September 29. The racing board agreed, and denied Oak Tree a license to race at Santa Anita. That white-haired man you see on the corner with a tin cup might be Santa Anita's major domo, Frank Stronach.
For once, the owners and the trainers were simpatico. For once, the racing board did the right thing. Have you ever tried to buy dirt, lots of dirt? Where do you go? To Dirt World? Dirt City, maybe? I looked for Dirt International in the phone book and there was no listing.
A few years ago, when the new Santa Anita synthetic track was under construction, Sherwood Chillingworth of Oak Tree took me on a tour. I noticed mound after mound of dirt in the north parking lot.
"What's that?" I said.
"That's the old dirt," Chillingworth said. "Left over from when they started putting in the new track. We're saving it in case anything goes wrong."
They didn't save it long enough. Now Santa Anita could use some dirt, lots of it, and those Everests of dirt in the parking lot have gone bye-bye.
At the racing board meeting, Stronach was told that he needed the board's permission to return to dirt, and while this may have only been one of the niceties of parliamentary procedure, it seemed idiotic at face value. The synthetic era, short-lived as it's been, has been a disaster, a monument to poor research and poorer execution. Armies of functionaries were sent to tracks all over planet, to see how ersatz tracks had made horses' lives better, and the bottom line healthier. Immaterial, it seemed, was that they looked at tracks that had different climates for racing dates, and far fewer horses and racing dates to be accommodated.
Then the four California tracks affected by the racing board's mandate--Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Golden Gate Fields--went virtually separate ways in hiring companies to install the new tracks. With the exception of Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, there was no overlap of surfaces, and Santa Anita's roll of the dice with Cushion Track came up snake-eyes. What I found really puzzling was that Santa Anita and Golden Gate went different ways, even though they are both owned by Magna and might have qualified for a two-track discount. Perhaps Santa Anita, given more time to commit, was still hoping for an 11th-hour synthetic reprieve from the racing board. One thing about Stronach, he never waffled about the new surfaces. He eschewed them from the outset, and he still does.
What also bothered me was that Los Alamitos, the quarter horse track in Orange County, was exempt from the synthetic mandate, even though it runs more dates than any track in the state and has frequently had a breakdown rate that's hardly envious.
It appears that Del Mar is going to bite the bullet and not hop on Santa Anita's return-to-dirt bandwagon. Ditto, Golden Gate. If they ever change their minds, they might have to buy their dirt from Stronach. He's in a position to become the new dirt king of the Western World.