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A NEW IMAGE, ON THE SURFACE HOLLYWOOD PARK TRIES SYNTHETIC SOIL.

Byline: KEVIN MODESTI Staff Writer

INGLEWOOD -- This afternoon at Hollywood Park, California horse racing begins to rebuild its image from the ground up.

That's the hope, anyway, on opening day of a 36-day season that marks the West Coast debut of a synthetic-soil racing surface intended to be easier on horses' legs and reverse the state's reputation for dangerously hard tracks.

``California is going to be known as the state with the safest racing surfaces in the country,'' predicted Gary Mandella, a second-generation trainer whose enthusiasm for the ersatz earth is widely shared by those who have been exercising horses on Hollywood Park's new main oval for the past seven weeks.

Optimism over the new surface, combined with horseplayers' curiosity about how it will affect the way races are run, have made today's eight-race card the most anticipated opener since 68-year-old Hollywood Park introduced its short autumn meet in 1981.

Tuesday morning, Mandella stood on the balcony of the track's backstretch cafeteria, clocking Men Only as the 4-year-old worked out on the tan surface that consists of synthetic fibers, elastic fiber and granulated rubber, coated with a wax blend and mixed with silica. A layman noticed two differences from traditional soil. Hooves strike the ground almost silently, and there's little backward spray.

Mandella pointed out another difference.

``Watch my horse's feet as he goes by,'' said Mandella, son of Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. ``You can actually see the sun glistening off the metal of the shoes. Traditional tracks that have organic material like pine bark bind to the bottom of the feet; horses' shoes don't hit the ground flat. This stuff falls right off the feet. That's the crux of why this track is safer. That and the fact it's the same every day; the horses get used to it and adjust their strides.''

Meanwhile, people must adjust to a new vernacular. Because water goes right through the nine-inch surface to a drainage system consisting of five miles of pipe, the synthetic world has no such thing as a ``muddy track.''

One unanswered question: How will the waxed material stand up to the intense heat of a California summer?

Hollywood Park began the more than $8 million project of replacing its natural surface in July, a couple of months after the California Legislature passed a bill requiring the state's five major thoroughbred tracks to go synthetic by the end of 2007. Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro's breakdown in the Preakness had intensified calls for horse-safety measures.

Hollywood Park chose a compound, brand-named Cushion Track, manufactured by an English company. Santa Anita and Del Mar are still picking brands.

Such so-called ``all-weather tracks'' have been used in England for a decade and made their U.S. debut when Kentucky's Turfway Park put in a Polytrack surface in 2005.

Kentucky's Keeneland racecourse used Polytrack for its classy fall meet this year.

Judging by the Keeneland results, handicappers can expect Hollywood Park races to be as much as a second slower than before and to be won more often by horses coming from behind and running near the inside rail.

If off-track and Internet betting was California racing's revolution of the 1990s, and more aggressive drug testing has defined the past few years, synthetic tracks are the new rage for an industry fighting for its sports and gambling niche. The hope is that the softer footing will keep horses sounder, encouraging owners to patronize the state, creating the bigger fields that bettors like.

Support for the synthetic experiment was far from unanimous at first.

``I want change,'' trainer Mike Mitchell said in June, ``but I think they're jumping into it too fast.''

But after winning Saturday's California Cup Classic at Santa Anita with Texcess, a horse who had been training at Hollywood Park, Mitchell lauded Cushion Track as ``the best thing that's happened to racing.''

Hollywood Park racing secretary Martin Panza said all 1,858 stalls in the facility's barns are booked, up from about 1,200 a year ago. Reflecting an attitude shift, a half-dozen eastern trainers are expected to have horses here by mid-November.

``(The new surface) definitely made it easier to convince owners to come out here,'' said Lisa Lewis, the longtime New York trainer who is at Hollywood Park with 16 horses. ``The racetracks were always a concern.''

Panza said since Hollywood Park re-opened for training Sept. 13, the equine ambulance has been called out only twice, and one horse had to be euthanized.

Previously, Panza said, ``four, five, six'' horses might have suffered fatal injuries in a similar span.

The Hollywood Park fall meet that begins at 12:30 p.m. today can't help but be better than last year's, at which the failure of a new turf course knocked out the trademark Turf Festival stakes. The advent of Cushion Track has created what might be unreasonable expectations.

``The thing that scares me is when people say, `You're going to have a great meet,''' Panza said. ``This is just the start. A year from now (after other tracks have gone synthetic), I think you'll really see the benefit of it.''

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(color) Hollywood Park hopes its new synthetic surface will attract more horses, particularly from the East Coast.

Steve Turner/Hollywood Park

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HOLLYWOOD PARK AT A GLANCE
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Words:892
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