Officially, the day-long conclave was called a "Special Purpose Meeting." Better than a "summit," I suppose. There were so many panels, so many speakers, that it seemed as though the valets in the jockeys' room were the only group left out. A scholar in the room sidled up to me early on and said, "Do you remember the book, 'A Confederacy of Dunces'?" I said I did, and that John Kennedy Toole, who wrote the satire, had been honored with a Pulitzer Prize 11 years after his suicide. The scholar asked if that would be a nice name for the Santa Anita gathering. "Too harsh," I said, and we let it go at that.
Cushion Track at Hollywood Park, that is. Cushion Track at Santa Anita, which has resulted in 11 cancellations this season, has now been whipped into a hybrid of the original stuff and corrections brought in by the Pro-Ride people from Australia. Paul Harper, of beleaguered Cushion Track, sent Richard Shapiro, chairman of the racing board, an e-mail that he would be unable to attend the meeting. Sharpiro, in the tradition of the turf, announced Harper's absence by saying that he was a "late scratch." Late scratch, my eye. I've never met Harper, but he resonates as a smart man. Had he shown up, we would have had the first public hanging in the history of Santa Anita.
Ron Charles, president of Santa Anita, has his fingers crossed that the hybrid will endure until the meet ends in April. Then, Charles said, Santa Anita must go back to the drawing board. "No one is aware more than I am that we have the Breeders' Cup here two years in a row," Charles told The Blood-Horse. "We have got to get it right. This surface that's out there right now will only last us through the end of the meet."
If I were the Breeders' Cup, I would be getting nervous about its scheduled dates at Santa Anita on Oct. 24-25. When the current meet ends, on April 20, Santa Anita is expected to remain open as a training facility for about 2,000 horses while Hollywood Park runs its meet. That could prevent re-doing the main track at Santa Anita until mid-July. The Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita is scheduled to open on Sept. 24. There won't be much of a window for a dry run, and there isn't much margin for error, before the Breeders' Cup is upon Santa Anita. Churchill Downs, I'm told, is standing by.
Frank Stronach, who signs the checks, has reportedly told Charles that he wants dirt redux at Santa Anita. Still on the books is the racing board's mandate that all major thoroughbred tracks in California must use synthetic surfaces as part of their licensing requirements, but the racing board might owe Stronach one. He's already spent more than $10 million--the outlay is probably well north of that by now--trying to do what they forced him to do. Can the racing board now ask struggling Magna--with losses of $350 million in the last three-plus years, and in jeopardy of being deep-sixed from the NASDAQ stock exchange--to spend $10 million more on Pro-Ride, or Tapeta, or Jiffy Lube? I say that they'll have to put a gun to Stronach's head before that happens. And then Stronach would take a chance that it's a gun that isn't loaded.