04/18/2004 11:00PM

Change of venue and more

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The crosstown move from Santa Anita to Hollywood Park represents more than a simple switch in venues. It means winter has passed, top-class turf racing soon will be in full swing, 2-year-old racing is just around the bend, and Friday night racing has returned.

The Hollywood spring-summer meet begins Wednesday, with first post at its usual weekday start of 1:20 p.m. The opening of the meet is good news for racing fans who are ready for spring. Beyond wide distribution of racing coverage on Television Games Network, the start of Hollywood means a new set of handicapping challenges and a stakes program that picks up tempo along the way.

"We've tried to build our stakes schedule so it feeds itself," said Martin Panza, Hollywood's racing secretary. And it does. Unlike the awkward placement of the Sunshine Millions series at Santa Anita, which is positioned four weeks into the meet and detracts from the track's graded stakes program, Hollywood runs its richest restricted races on opening weekend. The $1.3 million California Gold Rush is a six-stakes, 10-race card for California-breds. Afterward, there is logical progression to the calendar.

The meet's two richest races reflect tradition and innovation. The Grade 1, $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 10 - 1 1/4 miles on dirt for older horses - has averaged six betting interests since it was changed from a handicap to weight-for-age in 1997. The newest addition to the stakes calendar will be run for the third time - the $750,000 American Oaks on July 3. A 1 1/4-mile turf race for 3-year-old fillies, it had 14 runners its first two renewals, and has been awarded Grade 1 status in just its third year.

Other meet highlights include Saturday's Gold Rush program; the $350,000 Jim Murray Memorial Handicap, a 1 1/2-mile turf race on May 8; and two Grade 1 turf races on Memorial Day May 31 - the Gamely for fillies and mares, and the Shoemaker Mile. Most big days include more than one stakes. The intention is clear, according to Panza: "If you're going to come only two or three times, maybe you want to come on one of those days."

Big days, said Panza, "are easier to market. It means racing and marketing are on the same page."

Of course, it all starts with horses and horsemen. Trainer Doug O'Neill will seek a second straight spring-summer training title, and he has the numbers to make it happen. Over the past year, O'Neill has started 781 runners in Southern California, 233 more than Bob Baffert, who has started 548. O'Neill, runner-up to Jeff Mullins in the Santa Anita trainer standings, expects plenty of action at Hollywood.

"Pretty much everything that can run every three or four weeks is going to run," said O'Neill, who entered the meet with 70 horses in training. Five of them entered the opening-day card, including the favorite, Hosco, in the $75,000 Harry Henson Stakes at 5 1/2 furlongs on turf.

The race fits Hosco "to a T," O'Neill said, adding "I just hope we didn't hurt his confidence too much at Sunland Park."

Hosco won three races at six furlongs, including a Grade 3, before O'Neill and owners Lorraine and Rod Rodriguez caught Kentucky Derby fever. Hosco lost three straight at longer distances however, including a last-place finish March 28 in the $500,000 WinStar Derby at Sunland. "We were all hoping he'd be a Derby type of horse, but it looks like his best races are going to be around one turn," O'Neill said.

Hosco's best races are faster than any of the others have run, yet he is anything but a cinch on Wednesday. Tyler Baze rides Hosco, who carries 123 pounds, four to six pounds more than his rivals. He will also be racing for the first time on grass.

Hosco's main rivals include lightly raced Evolution, who is facing winners after a solid maiden win, and Wimplestiltskin, who finished second in a minor stakes last time. Wimplestiltskin is proven on turf, and was only a length behind Hosco in the Grade 2 San Vicente in February.

Other starters in the Henson include 2-for-4 Golden Gate shipper Stormin Lyon, longshots Pioneerman and Tricky Flash Flood, and speedballs Tunder Ponche and Cosmic Glitter. The presence of other front-runners compromises Hosco, as O'Neill admits. "I was kind of hoping there wouldn't be a ton of speed, but at five and a half on the grass you're going to get speed," he said.

The grass course is more developed than usual for April, largely because of modern maintenance procedures. Hollywood purchased a solar-panel covering for the turf, which provides a greenhouse effect for the area that is covered. The track used the covering from January until early this month, and racing secretary Panza said: "This is by far the best I've seen the course. Going into the meet in April, it's much farther along than it's ever been."