12/14/2001 12:00AM

Californians take pause to refresh


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Stay calm. We'll get through this together. Pretty soon it will all be over, and we will laugh at our fears and trepidations. But yes, it is very scary, because the question hangs in the air, loaded with dread: How will the game survive . . . eight straight days without racing?

Late on Monday afternoon, once the final race of the Hollywood Park meet is official, there will commence a interregnum during which California racing, both north and south, will fall silent to the world. There will be no 12:30 first posts, no horn riffs from Jay Cohen, no simulcasting to the betting masses, no burgers in the paddock, no scattered tickets, no overnights, no overweights, and nary a whisper from Trevor, Vic or Tony.

Racing will commence again - at both Santa Anita and Golden Gate - on the day after Christmas. But what are we to do in the meantime? Did anyone consider the psychological toll? Would you turn a class of third-graders loose without sufficient warning to the local community?

The break has been in place since the 2001 racing calendar was approved last year. It was hailed by most of the daily participants - trainers, jockeys, frontside staff - as nothing less than heaven sent. But now that it's upon us, now what?

"In a few days I'll probably be going stir-crazy by one o'clock in the afternoon," said Doug O'Neill, whose stable is enjoying a solid fall meet at Hollywood. "So much of the afternoon stuff is entertaining, spending time with owners and friends. The mornings won't change.

"I may actually go visit my health club," O'Neill added. "Give me a week, I might end up looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger."

The racetrack mentality is locked in tight. The work week is basically 24-7, 365 days a year, time off only for sales, suspensions, injury or family crisis. But it really, really has to be a crisis.

"I had people asking me to come to Vegas, do this, do that," said trainer Bill Spawr. "Instead, I'll be working my butt off."

Spawr, like a lot of his colleagues who are in action every day, will spend the time playing catch up. He has a farm and training center tour lined up that will keep him popping Christmas CDs into his car stereo all week long.

"I've got each day planned," he said. "I'll be going to Golden Eagle one day, then Paseana, Ridgeley, Farrell Jones's place, San Luis Rey. I'm really looking forward to it."

Given the choice, Summer Mayberry wishes the Hollywood fall meet would run until Flag Day. Through Friday, she had started seven horses and won with four of them. Alas, all good things must come to an end.

"We thought about going to Florida to visit my mom, but she's coming here right after Christmas," Mayberry said. Mom, in this case, is Jeanne Mayberry, mentor of Summer and wife of the late Brian Mayberry.

The eight-day break will give Summer Mayberry a chance to play with her recently retired racehorse, Free World.

"He's my favorite horse," Mayberry said. "When he bled through Lasix in a workout last month, I figured that was enough. So I gave him a few weeks off and sent him to a place called Rainbow Canyon. I'd like to see if we can start teaching him how to jump."

Racetrack executives are torn. They recognize a need to give the game a break. But a day without racing is a day without income stream, and eight days is like a moratorium. The last time Southern California went this dark was in December of 1980, the year before the circuit went non-stop.

"I'm at a complete and total loss," said Rick Baedeker, president of Hollywood Park, in a weak attempt to elicit sympathy. "I'm going to sit here in a dark office and dream of things that could have been."

Without a Thoroughbred "host" meet in progress until Dec. 26, Hollywood, Santa Anita, and all the other traditional betting sites will be closed for business.

"Most people hope that our customers will be refreshed and anxious to go by opening day at Santa Anita," Baedeker said. "Others may look for other ways to play. We've got these new, glitzy Indian casinos not that far away, and it's always a risk that we're going to lose folks that way.

"But our lives are changing," Baedeker went on. "Next year at this time we will be completing the first year of [in-home] account wagering in California. And with all of the account wagering outside the California border, you have to look at our product in terms of the rest of the country. With a break like this, you're really deciding to take your product off the shelf for a number of days.

"So it becomes an economic call," Baedeker added. "The freshening of the product locally versus the big business we hope to do."

Fortunately racing writers get to live in a blissful bubble, shielded from such concerns. And much as this one would like to stick around to monitor the return of sport to Tampa Bay Downs and the fascinating twists of the Aqueduct inner-track, my hard drive is fried and my disks are all full. So I . . . am . . .outta here. See you opening day.