Sorting out Santa Anita fiasco

Know which Southern California sports personality is wearing the biggest bull’s-eye on his back this weekend? LaDainian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers? No, I’m thinking of Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board.

Critics and fans alike are blaming Shapiro for the ongoing Cushion track fiasco at Santa Anita Park. That’s because two years ago he mandated synthetic surfaces for the major California racetracks.

Santa Anita raced Thursday on Cushion track. Track officials bought a little time because the weather looks good for the next week, but they aren’t out of the woods yet. Not by a long shot.

My concern here is whether Shapiro should be fired. He’s being made the scapegoat. But folks shouldn’t rush to judgment.

Shapiro has been the most proactive chairman in the history of the CHRB. He dictated change in many areas because the California horse racing industry was in a free fall. When Shapiro took over, the status quo became unacceptable.

But when you’re a risk taker, as Shapiro has proven to be, not every new idea works. In his defense, I like the way he shook up the horse industry. But now those he has negatively affected are calling for his head.

Critics conveniently forget that before Shapiro mandated synthetic surfaces, the main dirt tracks in California were killing fields. Shapiro acted in the name of equine safety.

Early returns have shown synthetic surfaces are doing what they’re supposed to. Safer training and racing has led to larger fields and increased wagering. A drop in injuries has lowered costs to horse owners, another shrinking commodity in California. The switch to synthetic surfaces hasn’t been perfect, but the horse carnage has been reduced.

The move also has helped recruit new barns from other states. The stables of trainers Todd Pletcher, Christophe Clement, Graham Motion, Cody Autrey, to name a few, wouldn’t have come to California if not for synthetic surfaces. The switch also contributed to jockeys Rafael Bejarano and Julien Leparoux heading west.

The real scapegoat here shouldn’t be Shapiro, but the folks behind Cushion track. After installing a perfectly good surface at Hollywood Park, they decided to tinker with it at Santa Anita. The Arcadia, Calif., track never should have been allowed to be used as a guinea pig. Test your new products somewhere else.

The Cushion track people should pay for financial damages incurred by Santa Anita and its horsemen. As for us horseplayers, we’ll rebound from this. But we won’t soon forget.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com.

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