Joy is genuine over synthetic surface at Santa Anita

Jun 5, 2007 2:17 AM

GOLDEN’S BELMONT PICKS

Win

Curlin

Asmussen

Place

Hard Spun

Jones

Show

Tiago

Shirreffs

The word "cushion," by definition, can mean "bolster, buffer or protection," among other things, but by any description, it has been unanimously welcomed by horsemen in Southern California, at least at Hollywood Park, where the synthetic surface known as Cushion Track has replaced the traditional dirt course, as mandated by the California Horse Racing Board.

Next up: Cushion Track will be installed at Santa Anita Park, up and running in time for the Oak Tree meet that begins on Sept. 26. Horsemen, in general a group as diverse in their opinions as political factions in the Middle East, can’t wait.

Safety of horse and rider was foremost in the minds of horsemen who lobbied vehemently for synthetic surfaces before the CHRB acquiesced and decreed that California tracks racing at least four weeks annually must have a synthetic main track by the end of this year. Del Mar already has complied, opting for a brand known as Polytrack.

"I’m very, very happy," said Jeff Mullins, one of Southern California’s leading trainers, who shifted his base of operations from Santa Anita to Hollywood once the Inglewood facility went to Cushion Track. "The guy who deserves a lot of credit for Cushion Track being installed at Santa Anita is (Santa Anita President) Ron Charles. He’s gone to bat for us and been in the forefront and maybe even stuck his neck out for us. As a horseman myself, I appreciate it."

But like Gregg Popovich’s face, all was not smooth.

"Hollywood had a minor problem early on with water, but it’s like anything else," Mullins said. "Problems occur and you work your way through them. Now we’ll be able to train at either track and not have to worry. Temperatures at Santa Anita could be more extreme, and that might affect it differently than Hollywood, but we’re still going through a learning process. Once they get the hang of it and learn how to deal with it in winter and in summer, I think we’ll be fine. The main thing is the safety of the horses. If you look at the stats on horses being hurt, I’ll bet you the numbers have gone way down."

Trainer Howard Zucker is a staunch supporter of synthetic surfaces, yet seemed as indecisive as a squirrel crossing the street.

"I love the fact that we’ll be able to have the same surface to train on at both tracks, if the maintenance is done the same way," he said. "That’s an issue all trainers have raised, because the track superintendents at each track (Steve Wood at Santa Anita and track surface consultant Dennis Moore at Hollywood) have diverse philosophies, so the surfaces could be more different than the winter dirt tracks used to be. At Hollywood, even the slightest change in maintenance results in a big change in the track. Dennis has worked very carefully yet still had to overcome some glitches, but overall, it’s great.

"Different conditions prevail at Santa Anita, especially in cold weather. This winter, one morning it was 27 degrees and we had a whole month where every morning it was into the 30s, so that will need a different approach. But Ron Charles deserves an Eclipse Award for what he’s done to bring this about at Santa Anita. I know it hasn’t been easy for him."

John Sadler, for years one of the circuit’s most successful trainers, like Mullins also was lured from Santa Anita to Hollywood because of the Cushion Track.

"We’re happy with Hollywood," he said. "It was very good this winter, and since we’ve been here, they’re still learning how to work it. It’s played a bit inconsistent in the afternoons, and that’s resulted in several Pick Six carryovers. They’re learning how to keep it more consistent, but as far as fewer injuries to the horses, that seems to be going pretty well.

"The majority of horsemen are extremely happy that we’re going to have the same surface at each track. It’s going to be very convenient and more horses will be ready to run; you won’t have to worry about training at one track versus the other. That’s a tremendous benefit."

Addressing weather variances from Hollywood to Santa Anita, he said: "There can be five to seven degrees difference. Usually, when I leave my house in the winter (from Pasadena, near Santa Anita), it’s five degrees colder than it is at Hollywood. In summer, it’s hotter at Santa Anita because we get more of a breeze at Hollywood. I’m confident each track will make adjustments for temperature changes."

Bettors have had to follow a learning curve for the new surface, as well, but Sadler is confident it will be better for them.

"It will help them to be on the same surface," he said. "They’ll have a larger body of work and they won’t have to start over from one meet to the next. It will be very good for the handicappers, plus it will be good for the game."

Bob Baffert, a frequent critic of dirt surfaces, particularly in Southern California, took a wait-and-see approach.

"The jury’s still out," he said. "Horses will still get hurt, but not as much overall. Cushion Track is more consistent than Polytrack, to me. At Keeneland (which has Polytrack), you never know what you’re going to get. It’s like it changes every hour. Polytrack can be manipulated (through maintenance) more than Cushion Track. I think Cushion Track is going to help. If it brings more horses to California, that’s good. I’m glad we have it."

The homestretch

”¡ With less than half a dozen prospects for Saturday’s Belmont, look for Hard Spun to set the pace. Curlin will stalk in second and overtake him turning for home, drawing off to win in hand. However, don’t expect the $2 exacta to return more than even money. Tiago completes a picayune trifecta.

”¡ Trainer Brian Koriner says the next race for sharp speedster Black Seventeen will be the $300,000 Carry Back Stakes at Calder on July 7.

”¡ With its Cushion Track already in place at a cost of some $8 million and the recent construction of a state-of-the-art lounge in the grandstand (featuring large screen flat panel TVs, self service mutuel machines, computers with on-line access and a perky and personable hostess in Courtney Vine) perhaps Hollywood Park is not closing in the immediate future as rumored.

It would seem financially impractical for a lame duck company to spend that kind of money. Despite weekday crowds of less than 4,000, there is a pulse. Handle for the first four Friday nights averaged $1.5 million, up 21 percent from a year ago, and on-track attendance averaged 8,866, an increase of 22 percent.