06/27/2007 11:00PM

Cushion Track has changed


Hollywood Park was the first of California's five major tracks to install a synthetic racing surface to replace a traditional dirt track.

Trainers, jockeys, and horse owners enthusiastically supported the change, with more horses on the grounds, more horses in the entry box, and considerable praise for the fair and safer way the new surface played during the 2006 fall meet.

Horseplayers, somewhat confused by the radical change in the racing surface, were not ready to endorse all those positive sentiments. But a scattering of open-minded horseplayers did see at least three distinct patterns.

* The larger fields created more interesting betting races.

* Front-running horses and pure pace pressers did not fare as well as they did in previous meets, especially in route races.

* Horses that trained over the synthetic surface seemed to have an advantage over horses that trained over the glib Santa Anita dirt track.

While those three trends remain potent handicapping factors, the key beneficiary was the added safety the Hollywood Cushion Track provided to the horses racing over it.

Many trainers reported fewer breakdowns, with few horses coming back from workouts and races with body or leg soreness.

Praise for the new surface was nearly unanimous. So it was natural to see even more horses training and racing over the Cushion Track in 2007, a fact that ironically contributed to some unexpected problems.

"The track has gotten more use in the eight months it's been here than any synthetic track in history," said trainer Howard Zucker, chairman of the California Thoroughbred Trainers racetrack committee, which monitors track conditions for the horsemen in the state.

The added daily usage by so many more horses, along with the warmer weather during the spring and summer apparently has contributed to a depletion of wax - a fundamental ingredient in all synthetic surfaces.

No longer is Hollywood's Cushion Track performing to great praise; no longer are horses traveling over it as smoothly or as safely, although catastrophic injuries have been rare and the pattern of races has not been altered significantly.

Clocker Bruno DeJulio, who has been watching horses race and train on the Southern California circuit for several years, reports that the texture of the synthetic surface has changed from a visual standpoint since the fall meet.

"It's definitely darker in color compared to last fall," DeJulio said. "Last year you saw very few horses short-striding or bobbling. . . . The track didn't break out from underneath them and it was a very sound surface. The track now is playing looser."

Hollywood officials admitted last week that the depleted wax content needs to be addressed. They are aware that more wax is needed to keep the surface from becoming dangerous.

Several trainers have privately admitted that some of their stock sustained back injuries.

Recognizing the problem, Hollywood officials are planning to apply more wax to bind and coat the granulated rubber, synthetic fibers, sand, and elastic fibers that make up the patented mixture of the British-made Cushion Track. But first, the wax has to be shipped to Hollywood, where it will be applied as early as July 9, or perhaps not until racing shifts to Del Mar on July 18.

What does this mean for horseplayers?

In recent weeks, clockings have gotten noticeably slower, and some horses have not handled the looser surface nearly as well as the tight, perfectly balanced surface of 2006. Many horses have not handled the synthetic track as well as they did during the first two months of the current Hollywood meet.

This suggests that horses who negatively reversed their synthetic form from April to June might have been affected by the changing racing surface.

It also suggests that horses who might have missed a start during the last few weeks may have been forced to the sidelines to deal with body soreness, or some other minor injury. It also suggests that horses with good April and early May form over the surface should not be given an automatic edge on the present racing surface.

For example, the 4-year-old filly GetbackTime, sent off at 2-5 odds in a $75,000 Cal-bred sprint stakes on June 24, failed to reproduce the solid form she had shown winning a similar Cal-bred stakes over the track in late April. Her failure may have been due to other factors, but she did not train particularly fast over the Cushion Track in recent weeks and probably should not have been trusted at such short odds.

Conversely, in that same sprint race, Lady Gamer, absent since a pair of victories over the Hollywood surface last fall, had solid recent workouts over the looser Cushion Track and returned to dominate Getback Time in an easy wire-to-wire victory.

The shifts that have been taking place in the Hollywood surface also may explain why some proven Cushion Track performers are being placed in turf races. Trainers certainly are aware of the anecdotal evidence that strongly suggests a positive correlation between synthetic track form and turf.

Here are a few other trends that may affect handicapping as well as post-race analysis of Cushion Track races to the end of the meet in mid-July.

Pace ratings will need to be adjusted to reflect slower final fractions that are occurring more regularly while the Cushion Track is lacking its proper wax content. The comparison below is typical of differences observed during the past month.

On May 23, while the wax content presumably was closer to normal, 3-year-old $12,500 claiming fillies went 6 1/2 furlongs, with the final sixteenth clocked in 6.70 seconds.

On June 21, considerably faster $50,000 claiming fillies also went 6 1/2 furlongs, but the final sixteenth was clocked in a slower 6.94.

The final sixteenth for claiming sprints is about .20 to .40 of a second slower in June compared with the Hollywood clockings recorded in May. The slowdown rate for route races is more pronounced in late June compared with April and May.

The pattern of the way races are being won continues to be stable, with an equal balance of front-runners, pace pressers, mid-pack closers and stretch runners from back in the pack. No lane bias has been dominant, although there have been a few days when the rail was not the place to be, or it was the best lane on the track. This of course, brings up an important point about the synthetic track experiment.

The California Horse Racing Board should be applauded for insisting on synthetic tracks at the state's premier racetracks. While each track is sure to encounter tricky maintenance issues, the horses deserve the safest conditions that modern technology can provide.

Yet, the tracks and racing commissions must accept that they will make mistakes during the course of this experiment. The tracks and supervisory personnel also should not hesitate to inform the horsemen and the betting public about efforts underway to fix the track. Likewise, excessive track maintenance must be avoided where it just might destroy the balance needed to make reasonably accurate predictions.

Steve Davidowitz will be at Hollywood Park on Saturday, June 30, for a handicapping seminar at 11:00 a.m. and to sign copies of his new book, "The Best and Worst of Thoroughbred Racing."