Immediate occupancy. All-weather, heavily
camouflaged. Waterproof. Six feet deep. Short-
term lease, through April 24 (end of Santa Anita's
racing season). Will make best offer. Contact
Richard B. Shapiro, chairman, California Horse
Racing Board. Collect calls welcome.
The truth of it is, Shapiro has never wrapped himself in a bunker mentality, but lately, in the face of doomsday at Santa Anita, he's been forced to circle the wagons. All Santa Anita could do on Saturday and Sunday was take a lyric from the Gershwins: Let's call the whole thing off. The flip side belonged to Gene Kelly, mounting a lamp post with an umbrella in his hand. Down the drain, for now, were three stakes races, including the San Pasqual Handicap, an early prep for the Santa Anita Handicap. The I-told-you-so crowd, and they definitely know who they are, was saying mean things about Cushion Track, the synthetic surface at Santa Anita, and even meaner things about Shapiro, who envisioned himself as the proud father of all things wax and rubber in the Far West.
The high-foreheaded Shapiro is already short of scalp, and for sure, as his detractors take a number, there's not enough of him to go around. The man needs someone to taste his food, someone to start his car. How did it come to this? Well, kiddies, in the the spring of Aught Six, the good commissioner and three henchmen (names later) passed an ultimatum that required the state's five thoroughbred tracks to lay down all-weather tracks by January of this year. No trackee, no runee, was what this august body told Frank Stronach (Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields), Jack Liebau (Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows) and Joe Harper (Del Mar). The California fairs, which run abbreviated dates and could hardly justify a per-track expense of about $10 million, were exempt, as were a harness track in Sacramento and Los Alamitos, known mostly for its quarter horses.
Bay Meadows, in a race with Hollywood Park to see who goes out of business first, wriggled out of the mandate, but the others fell in line. Safety of the Horse became the operative mantra. "It quickly got to the point where if you argued for dirt, you didn't care about the horse, and if you argued for synthetic, you did," said John Sikura, a Kentucky breeder who races in California and elsewhere. After one of his best fillies, More Happy, was moved by trainer Bob Baffert from Del Mar to Saratoga to win a Grade II stake, an angry letter by Sikura was published in Blood-Horse magazine. I talked to Sikura last week, and his spleen was still in a runaway position. I had to hold the phone a safe distance, lest I be punctured by his exclamation points.
"Can you imagine the National Football League deciding to play its game with coconuts instead of a ball, just before the playoffs?" Sikura said. "I've got my total life invested in this game, and out in California people who don't even own horses are telling me that they're changing the basis of that game. It's inconceivable. What they've done was way too presumptive. It was a knee-jerk reaction. There was no empirical data before they went into this. What they've done is a blight on the entire industry."
Counting the abortive start at Santa Anita, California is six meets into its synthetic era. At the Del Mar meet, which was the California debut for Polytrack, last summer was a joke. Knock, knock. Who's there? Betty. Betty who? Bet he runs a mile in 1:42. Good horses didn't run any faster than camels. Joe Harper, president of the seaside track, had a salty backstretch showdown with Ahmed Zayat early in the meet, and Zayat and his trainer, Baffert, moved their stock to Saratoga. At Golden Gate, where trainer Michael Dickinson's brainchild, Tapeta, is the underpinning, the track, unlike Santa Anita's, has been waterproof, but trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, for one, has told friends that his horses are suffering. Hollywood Park, which has run three meets with Cushion Track, has largely flown beneath the radar, but Lenny Shulman, an editor at the Blood-Horse, said that three horses were euthanized there during one morning of workouts. The Blood-Horse has had difficulty obtaining complete statistics of training and racing breakdowns in California.
"You want to have tracks as safe as possible, for the horse and the rider," Sikura said, "but injuries are always going to be part of the game. If you want a game without injuries, make it horse walking instead of horse racing."
On the Roger Stein show with Richard Shapiro, Shulman excoriated the commissioner for his unyielding position on synthetic tracks. "These tracks have been complete disasters," Shulman said. "I'm getting tired of you giving us this George Bush thing, where if you repeat a lie often enough, people will begin to believe it. California made a rush to judgment in forcing these tracks to install these surfaces. You've made a mistake, and you need to stand up and take the responsibility."
Shapiro chooses to shift the blame to the manufacturer, Cushion Track, for Santa Anita's drainage problems. "I'm very disappointed in some of the answers to questions that have been put to the Cushion Track people," he said. "But abandoning ship (on synthetics) because of one vendor mistake doesn't make a lot of sense."
Leland Yee, a state assemblyman from San Francisco, called for Shapiro's resignation from the racing board last year, as did Jerry Jamgotchian, a horse owner and gadfly whose high-octane appearances are de rigueur at monthly board meetings. There are rumors that Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor, might play terminator again and rid the board of Shapiro before his term expires later this year. A few days ago, Jim Ford, managing partner of the Newmarket Thoroughbred Racing syndicate, wrote Shapiro, asking him to resign.
"Where was your backup plan?" Ford asked of the Santa Anita postponements. "You have known for months that this could happen."
Newmarket had entered Hucking Hot, 5-1 on the morning line, in Sunday's scuttled $150,000 San Gorgonio Handicap.
"Horsemen get their horses prime and ready for a specific race," Ford said in his letter to Shapiro. "They don't just lead them over one day and hope the right race comes up. (This filly) could get sick, get injured or otherwise not be ready for (her) best performance the next time a race for which (she is) best suited appears. . . This didn't happen at some small, obscure racetrack. It happened at Santa Anita--"The Great Race Place.". . . (Resigning) is your only way out."
In May of 2006, California racing began painting itself into this corner at a racing board meet at Los Alamitos Race Track. The motion to mandate all-weather tracks was made, and after about five minutes of discussion, commissioners Shapiro, John Andreini, John Harris and William Bianco voted in favor. Commissioner Jerry Moss, who had won the Kentucky Derby with Giacomo the year before, abstained. He was the smartest guy in the room. It's only January, but in California the term "all-weather" is already the misnomer of the year.