They’re off and running on cushion track at Santa Anita

Sep 25, 2007 3:26 AM

History unfolds at Santa Anita tomorrow.

For the first time in 71 years, thoroughbreds will compete on a synthetic surface at the storied track that Seabiscuit called home. Cushion Track, a combination of chemically concocted materials that include rubber, wax, fiber and who knows what-all, has replaced the traditional dirt track.

Santa Anita thus joins Hollywood Park (Cushion Track) and Del Mar (Polytrack) as major Southern California venues with synthetic main surfaces. They have complied with a mandate from the California Horse Racing Board, which cited safety of horse and rider as being paramount in the change.

Hollywood was first on board, and understandably, adjustments were required in order to produce optimum conditions. Criticism was inflicted on Del Mar because of slow running times over its Polytrack, but officials there were unfazed, citing the reduction in injuries and fatalities suffered there in years past.

Santa Anita benefitted by eliminating all the worts incurred by Hollywood and Del Mar. All that remains is to hear Trevor Denman’s clarion, "And away they go," when Oak Tree starts its 31-day campaign on Wednesday.

"It feels good," jockey Aaron Gryder said of Santa Anita’s Cushion Track, where he had worked several horses prior to opening day. "It’s definitely firmer than the Cushion Track at Hollywood or the Polytrack at Del Mar. Horses really run on top of the surface at Santa Anita and that’s why you’re seeing fast times in morning workouts. They don’t go into it as much as they do at Hollywood Park.

"All horses seem to handle it well, but it’s like a grass course. When you work a horse on the grass, there are very few times an exercise rider or a jockey will say the horse didn’t handle it when they’re on the bridle. It’s kind of like that on Santa Anita’s Cushion Track. They skip across it because they’re on the top, and it’s not getting away from them.

"It will be interesting to see how they run on it. I think most horses will handle it, although I’d like to see a little more cushion. Even though times are fast, the track seems to be kind on them. But any time a horse is going :45 (for a half mile) and :58 (for five furlongs) in a morning workout, even if they’re doing it easy, I think it’s better of it could be slowed down just a touch. But so far, I like it."

Gryder, a 37-year-old native of West Covina, California, who made an immediate impact on returning to Santa Anita last winter to ride regularly after considerable success in New York, agreed that Santa Anita benefitted from the labors of Hollywood and Del Mar.

"It definitely gave Santa Anita an edge on the other two tracks, because now they’ve got some history on how to care for those," he said. "I worked a horse at Santa Anita at noon, because officials wanted to make sure the surface didn’t change later in the day like it did at Del Mar from morning to afternoon. It was a very nice horse, and he went around breezing in :58.1/5, so it wasn’t like the track got soft with the heat, and it was about 85 (degrees) that day.

"I like the track. I think it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of times they run, but I think it’s going to be a very safe track."

The homestretch

”¡ Braulio Baeza, who was acquitted Sept. 10 on all charges of conspiring to allow New York Racing Association jockeys to ride above their assigned weight, may never recover financially from the ordeal. The indictment, initiated by former New York Attorney General and present Governor Eliot Spitzer, took three years to resolve.

"It’s a big relief," said the 66-year-old retired Hall of Fame rider, who was assistant clerk of scales at NYRA tracks that include Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. "It was a heavy burden for three grueling years. It deprived me of my life and could have ruined my reputation, but I always had faith that the people who know me recognized the charges were all baloney. I have to see what I’m going to do now," continued Baeza, who before his retirement in 1976 rode 24 different champions, including Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, Arts and Letters, Ack Ack and Damascus. "I didn’t work for three years because of the litigation. I couldn’t get a license anywhere in the country, and horse racing has always been my only livelihood."

”¡ Even though injured Rags to Riches will miss the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, look for undefeated Nashoba’s Key to run in the Filly & Mare Turf and not the Distaff. Trainer Carla Gaines said the undefeated California-bred daughter of Silver Hawk would run in the Grade I Yellow Ribbon Stakes on turf at Oak Tree Sept. 29 before a possible start on Breeders’ Cup day at Monmouth on Oct. 27. The versatile filly is a stakes winner on Cushion Track and turf, but if all goes well, the grass looks greener. "Right now, we’re leaning towards the Filly and Mare Turf," Gaines said.

”¡ If Eagles’ fans think Donovan McNabb is unproductive, imagine how they’d feel if the team had drafted Ricky Williams instead. Two words on how to improve the Eagles’ stagnant offense: Jeff Garcia.

”¡ And how about them Phillies? If they win the NL East, or even make the Wild Card with their over-the-hill and crippled pitching staff, their stoic and overstuffed leader, Charlie Manuel, should be a unanimous choice for Manager of the Year.