09/27/2006 11:00PM

Artificial surface workers do well on Day 1


ARCADIA, Calif. - While three Grade 1 races Saturday command most of the attention opening weekend of the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, the biggest story of fall began to unfold early this week.

Wednesday's opening-day program at Oak Tree marked the first time that a California card included a significant number of horses that trained on an artificial surface - 22 of the 81 runners Wednesday had their final work on the new Cushion Track at Hollywood Park.

The handicapping dilemma is how Cushion Track-trained runners stack up against horses that train on dirt at Santa Anita. One day does not provide conclusive proof, but initial returns are encouraging for horses stabled at Hollywood - five of the nine winners worked at Hollywood.

"It says that you can train on that, and run on something else," trainer Richard Mandella said, adding that it debunks the theory that you can't train on Cushion Track and successfully switch back over to dirt.

The races Wednesday were so predictable - $9.40 was the high win payoff - that it may be premature to draw conclusions.

"It could be coincidence," Mandella admitted, "but it damn sure is not hurting them. If a horse is healthy and sound, he's going to run good somewhere."

That, of course, is an ultimate objective of an artificial track - a safe surface that reduces risk of injury. Workouts on the Cushion Track at Hollywood Park are generally slower than dirt works at Santa Anita. Thursday works at five furlongs were an example. At Hollywood, only one of the 32 works was timed in less than one minute; at Santa Anita 11 of 29 were less than one minute.

The trend is stronger at six furlongs. At Hollywood, two of the 13 works were timed in less than 1:14; at Santa Anita, 14 of 22 were less than 1:14. Trainer Vladimir Cerin suggested that Cushion Track runners might be better prepared than dirt-trained runners.

"When you train on a deeper surface, it is more tiring," Cerin said. "It takes more out of you, and you get fitter. The [Cushion Track] surface is kinder and more taxing. I think it's the best of all worlds."

First-time starter Liquidity won the first dirt race of the Oak Tree meet, and perhaps the 2-year-old was simply the best horse in the six-furlong race. He won by 1 1/4 lengths in a blazing 1:09.34, and earned a 94 Beyer Speed Figure. Others in the race add anecdotal support of Cushion Track over dirt.

Second-time starter Mystic Wood, who had two works on Cushion Track following his ninth-place debut at Del Mar, finished second while improving his Beyer Figure from 38 to 91. As for favorite Dee Rain, with workouts at Santa Anita and Del Mar, he finished a dull fourth and was beaten more than 11 lengths.

Hollywood-based trainer Doug O'Neill won four races Wednesday, probably not because of Cushion Track. He merely had the best horses in all the right races - Liquidity ($7.60) in race 2; class dropper Artaxman ($3) in race 3; downhill course specialist Cambiocorsa ($3) in race 8; and maiden dropper Star of Madraar ($6.60) in race 9.

One day of racing does not prove a point. All it really shows is that Cushion Track works are not a detriment to preparing for races on dirt or turf. Two of the three grass races Wednesday were won by Cushion Track-trained favorites - Unrivaled Song ($5) in race 1, and Cambiocorsa.

The effect of Cushion Track workouts will be a developing theme throughout fall. And while it remains undetermined whether artificial-track workouts provide an advantage, it is not premature to recognize that horses that train over the Cushion Track at Hollywood Park are not at any disadvantage when they race on dirt, or turf, at Santa Anita.

Picks for Grade 1 stakes

If there were such a thing as a cinch, The Tin Man would qualify Saturday. The 8-year-old The Tin Man runs 1 1/4 miles in the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Championship (race 5), a race in which he completely outclasses five rivals. The Tin Man is the only Grade 1 winner, his tactical speed insures a good trip on or near a slow pace, and he is a standout single in the final leg of the NTRA National Pick 4. If the wager were not so expensive (25 percent takeout), it would be a good bet.

o Del Mar Debutante winner Point Ashley drew post 11 of 11 starters in the Grade 1 Oak Leaf Stakes (race 9). It might be sufficient reason to consider her vulnerable in the 1 1/16-mile race for 2-year-old fillies. The best filly in the field, Point Ashley, faces a difficult scenario. In 1 1/16-mile races at Santa Anita since the start of 2000, post 11 is 4 for 61 (7 percent); post 10 is 11 for 111 (10 percent); and post 9 is 23 for 189 (12 percent).

o Wait a While faces older for the first time Saturday in the Grade 1 Yellow Ribbon Stakes (race 4). She will have to catch front-runners Dancing Edie and Live Life, over a lightning fast turf course. But the fact is, the California turf females have traded punches most of the year, and the 3-year-old Wait a While enters as a deserving favorite.