01/10/2008 1:00AM

Cushion Track still the right way to go


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Hollywood Park racetrack never looked so good in January.

Although Cushion Track at Santa Anita failed during heavy recent rain, Cushion Track at Hollywood Park weathered the storm. The track drained, and horses trained. Relatively speaking, it was business as usual.

But very little is normal these days in Southern California, and if Santa Anita moves forward with a plan to remove its much-criticized synthetic surface and replace it with traditional dirt, ramifications might be severe. As of Thursday, the track had not committed to switching back to a dirt surface and was continuing to race on Cushion Track.

"A lot of people came out to California this winter to race on synthetic," trainer Eoin Harty said, referring specifically to his clients Darley Stable and WinStar Farms. Informed of a possible return to dirt, Darley and WinStar voiced displeasure.

"They didn't mince their words," Harty said.

The message was clear. Without a synthetic surface to race on, Darley and WinStar might leave California. That would include the departure of WinStar's top Derby prospect Colonel John, and San Pasqual Handicap front-runner Well Armed.

It was the California Horse Racing Board that mandated the switch to synthetic surfaces, and critics of the move can use the Santa Anita failure to prove their point - that the switch to synthetic was way premature.

Meanwhile, field sizes are up at all three Southern California tracks. Fatalities per start on synthetic tracks in California are half of what they were on dirt tracks, according to the CHRB medical director, Dr. Rick Arthur. In 2004 and 2005, the fatality rate on the dirt main tracks in the state was 1 in 445; on synthetic surfaces it is 1 per 918. And another veterinarian said recently: "My business is down 40 percent, and that's good."

Proponents of synthetic tracks can use those positive statistics to prove their point - that the move to synthetic was both necessary and beneficial. Horses are staying healthier longer, and injuries are down. The stables at Hollywood and Santa Anita are full, at least for now.

The dirt-versus-synthetic debate will continue while Santa Anita ponders its next move. Apparently, that will not include a temporary relocation of the circuit to Hollywood. That is too bad, because the Hollywood surface is still good.

"I wish we would just come here," jockey Garrett Gomez said Thursday morning at Hollywood, where he worked Grade 1 winner Georgie Boy six furlongs in 1:12.80. Gomez said what many believe - that California winter racing might be well served if Santa Anita temporarily moved across town.

"During the whole session of rain, this track was usable," Gomez said of Hollywood. He then questioned whether a dirt surface at Santa Anita would be safe.

"It is going to drain the way they plan on it draining?" he said. "They could be in the same boat the next time it rains."

Santa Anita was given clearance by the CHRB to race at Hollywood, an unlikely scenario. Live crowds at Hollywood would be considerably smaller than at Santa Anita. From a financial perspective, Santa Anita might be better off limping through winter in Arcadia, rather than race in Inglewood.

Another issue holding up a change in venue is the Sunshine Millions program, which is a pet project of Magna Entertainment chairman Frank Stronach. The $3.6 million card for California-breds and Florida-breds, run at Gulfstream and Santa Anita, is highlighted by the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan.o26 at Santa Anita. It would be difficult to remove your pet project from your marquee track.

As one horseman said, "That's the only reason we're going through with all this nonsense - the Sunshine Millions."

Yet the complexion of the Sunshine Millions is subject to change because of surface, including the brightest star of the program - Nashoba's Key. Trainer Carla Gaines is contemplating running her against males in the $1omillion Classic, but only if the race is on Cushion Track.

Gaines was asked if a switch to a new dirt surface would influence the decision on whether to run Nashoba's Key in the Classic, or the $500,000 Filly-Mare Turf. "Absolutely," she said. "I am not running on asphalt that is covered with dirt." There is an asphalt base to the Santa Anita track.

Meanwhile, the CHRB and chairman Richard Shapiro are enduring a public relations nightmare for pushing forward with the synthetic mandate.

Some believe that the CHRB is solely responsible for the debacle, which may not be entirely true. Hollywood was making plans to install Cushion Track (pre-CHRB mandate), when it was sold to Bay Meadows Land Co. The cost of the project was factored into the purchase price of the track.

Del Mar is believed to have supported synthetic surfaces prior to the CHRB mandate, but faced opposition from the California Coastal Commission. The CHRB directive may have provided Del Mar with a tool to negotiate with environmental concerns.

As for Santa Anita, Stronach was reluctant to install synthetic. The CHRB mandate gave him no choice but to put in the new surface.

Imagine if Santa Anita had postponed installation of Cushion Track. It is unlikely the old dirt track could have handled the seven inches of rain that fell last week.

A few racing days would have been lost. There would have been renewed calls for an all-weather track.

Many would have wanted to race at Hollywood, the track that never looked so good in January.