Following Rash of Breakdowns, Penn National Suspends Racing to Resurface Track :: Pennyslvania Equestrian - News for the Horse owner
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Following Rash of Breakdowns, Penn National Suspends Racing to Resurface Track

by Terry Conway

Todd Beattie had seen enough.

After a rash of 14 fatal breakdowns over a 22-day stretch in August at Penn National Race Course, Beattie called for a shipping van.

In late August the trainer moved his prize colt Fabulous Strike, one of the nation's top sprinters, from Penn National to a barn at Presque Isle Downs & Casino due to concerns over the safety of the Penn National racing surface.

Beattie is one of the state's leading trainers and based at Penn National near Harrisburg.

The dramatic rise in the number of catastrophic breakdowns this summer at Penn National Race Course led the Pennsylvania Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) to insist on hiring an independent expert to examine the track.

Enter Glen Kozak. Recently named the new director of racing surfaces for Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga racetracks, Kozak visited the track the last week of August.

"Forget our position and forget Penn National's position, we needed an independent analysis," said Joe Santanna, the Pennsylvania president of HBPA. "We found out that the cushion was contaminated with part of the base of the track. It was no longer cohesive enough to create the balance that is needed for horses to run safely over the track."

Score one for the racehorses. Following the race card of September 20, live racing at Penn National will be shut down. The resurfacing project is expected to last until the end of October.

Penn National has denied that the number of breakdowns was 14, claiming seven fatalities, but Santanna contends the number is accurate based on data provided to his organization.

Emergency Situation

He sent a letter in June to the track's management indicating that the situation had become an emergency and the resurfacing needed to be done sooner than the originally scheduled time in 2009. Wrestling with the costs and benefits of the investment, management denied the request.

"The breakdowns became more frequent in August, and we felt the level was completely unacceptable," Santanna related. "All we've ever wanted was a safe environment for our horses, jockeys and exercise riders in the morning, afternoon and evening."

"Management could have added materials as a stop-gap solution, but the analysis was clear and decisive that a complete resurfacing was needed."

So when was the track last resurfaced?

"There have certainly been materials that have been added, parts of the track were peeled back and the base was checked, but some of our older members say it may have been as long as 20 years since the track was completely resurfaced," Santanna said.

"Those guys (jockeys and exercise riders) who go up there every day came back and said that the racetrack needed some attention," "We go through winterization and summerization, so you do have some changes with the racetrack."

Silt and Sand

Approximately 8,000 tons of silt and sand will be mixed to create the new track cushion. It will be applied to a depth of approximately three and one half inches around the one-mile track. In addition to the new track material, the underlying limestone base at some areas on the outside of the track will receive repairs.

"The base incorporating the inner racing paths is in solid condition," said Penn National's director of racing Rob Marella in a news release. "But with removing the entire cushion we are provided the opportunity to firm up the outside portions of the base as well.

"We are building some time into the project to account for possible weather factors, but feel confident the work can be done in a timely basis so the downtime affecting our horsemen and track-related staff is held to a minimum."

Santanna has owned and raced thoroughbreds in the Mid-Atlantic region for more than two decades. He is also the national director of HBPA and didn't mince words.

"In this age of health and welfare of horses, it's extremely disrespectful to our members who make the investment and work with the horses 24-7 to have them go up there and snap their leg off," said Santanna.

"We're absolutely delighted to see that the track is being refreshened," he said. "And we are delighted that they have agreed to accelerate the capital project immediately.

Unable to Train

"It will require some temporary difficult times. We'll go five or six weeks without the ability to train. We are trying right now to find some systematic and safe way to get horses relocated."

Penn National Racecourse' slot-machine casino opened last February, and through June of this year--the end of the 2007-08 fiscal year--slots had produced nearly $73 million in gross revenue according to a report at Blood-Horse.com.

The Pennsylvania HBPA also pushed Penn National management to consider installing a synthetic surface, offering to make a significant financial contribution to a project that could cost $8 million. The cost includes equipment to maintain the surface and regular visits from the company that would install the synthetic surface.

Trumpeting synthetic surface benefits, Santanna cited the fact that Presque Downs experienced only three breakdowns over its Tapeta synthetic surface from April 10 through September 7. The Pennsylvania HBPA kicked in $3 million towards the purchase of the Tapeta surface that was installed at the track near Erie, Pa. They offered to make a significant contribution to a synthetic surface at Penn National.

Still, management is not sold on synthetics.

"We don't get to make the decision," Santanna said. "Change is difficult to accept, but it should be made on factually information, not anecdotal. Still, economics are key.

"We've turned the page and we're anxious to get back to racing."

To contact horseracing writer Terry Conway, email Conway@dol.net

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