The Coast News Group
By year’s end work will begin to convert the race track at the Del Mar Fairgrounds from a synthetic material back to dirt.

Synthetic out, dirt in at Del Mar track

DEL MAR — The 22nd District Agricultural Association took the first official step to convert the racetrack at the Del Mar Fairgrounds from a synthetic material to dirt, unanimously approving a coastal development permit application at the April 8 meeting.

The project, expected to cost between $4.5 million and $5.5 million, will begin right after the 2014 fall race meet ends on Nov. 30.

Funding will likely come from a Del Mar Thoroughbred Club bridge loan that will be repaid with Race Track Authority money, fairgrounds General Manager Tim Fennell said.

Coastal Commission staff indicated to fairgrounds officials the permit will likely be approved.

About 10 years ago the California Horse Racing Board required all tracks in the state to convert from dirt to a synthetic material to provide a consistent surface for the horses as studies showed this would result in fewer injuries.

But the CHRB didn’t require one specific type of synthetic surface so different brands were being used.

About five years later, when the requirement was rescinded, Santa Anita immediately reverted back to dirt.

Del Mar and Hollywood Park maintained synthetic tracks until the latter closed last year.

“Del Mar is the lone synthetic track on the Southern California (horse racing) circuit,” Josh Rubenstein, DMTC executive vice president, said.

Once the conversion is complete, all horses in Southern California will race, train and work out on dirt, increasing safety for the horses and their riders, the staff report states.

Del Mar’s main track, made up of synthetic materials under the brand name Polytrack, was installed in 2007 with a useful life expectancy of seven years.

“So even if synthetic racing was still in the best interest of racing in Del Mar we would need to reinstall (a new track),” Rubenstein said.

There is some urgency because it’s not likely the Polytrack will last for the next season or two, board President Fred Schenk said.

Director David Watson said the company that installed the synthetic turf seven years ago is no longer in business. He also said dirt is much better than it used to be.

“I will look for the best and safest dirt out there,” Rubenstein said.

About 13.5 inches of the top Polytrack material will be removed and replaced with the same amount of dirt.

According to the staff report there will be no environmental impacts or change to the surface elevation.

The Polytrack slated to be removed will be sold to local horse riding areas for reuse.

The project is unrelated to an ongoing effort to expand and replace the inside turf track.

Removal of the old grass from that track began Sept. 5.

Installation of the new grass started March 19 and is expected to be ready for the start of this year’s racing season, which begins July 17 and runs through Sept. 3. A second fall meet will be held Nov. 7 through 30.

That $5 million project also will increase horse and rider safety, as well as hopefully attract the Breeders’ Cup in 2016.