01/04/2008 12:00AM

Dicey racetracks nothing new

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It was 9:30 a.m. Friday, the calm before the storm, and Santa Anita Park was eerily quiet. The action, what there was of it, was taking place on the dark sand of the infield training track, far removed from anyone viewing from the grandstand ramp. Reports from the north trickled in, overheard in bits of cell-phone chatter.

"How hard?"

"Are they racing?"

It's coming, and by the time this is in print - the ink running black - it will be at Santa Anita, accompanied by any soundtrack the mind manages to conjure, from "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" to "Riders on the Storm." For now, though, as post time approached Friday at Santa Anita, the hopeful mantra was pulled from that cinematic classic "Caddyshack," in which groundskeeper Carl Spackler proclaims, "I'd play on your eminence. I don't think the hard stuff is gonna come down for quite some time."

It was 10:30 a.m., and the harrows were tickling the surface of a sealed Cushion Track, which was supposed to be weatherproof, but is now being treated like some mutated form of traditional dirt. Santa Anita president Ron Charles walked off the track, head bowed, lost in thought, and repeated a question asked of him earlier by a local television reporter.

"He wanted to know the financial impact if we had to cancel a day of racing," Charles said. "I told him sure, there would be an impact. But it would be insignificant compared to a fatality out there. Safety is the issue."

This was good to hear, and coming from Charles, an owner of Thoroughbreds, it sounded properly sincere. Having been betrayed by this particular synthetic surface, Charles was looking at a possible multi-day cancellation, something that would affect the lives of everyone pulling a paycheck.

"It's awful," Charles said. "Just awful."

At 11:30 a.m., there were signs of showers on the western horizon. In San Francisco, things were different, a dire indication of what was in store down south.

"It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here," said trainer Jed Josephson, who is based at Golden Gate Fields.

Josephson had a pretty good vantage point, sitting in his houseboat just north of the racetrack on the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay. He had weathered tough storms before.

"I've never been in winds like this," Josephson said. "Usually, they come in from the west and you can ride them out. These are swirling, and very strong. I just hope my house doesn't sink."

Racetrackers and their noble horses are a resilient bunch. Bad racetracks have been part of the game for as long as rain and racing days have coincided. Trainer Jack Carava recalled the deluges of the mid-1980s when the rain-soaked cushion was scraped aside, forming a berm along the outer rail that presented its own problems.

"I saw that at Hollywood Park one winter, when I was working for Jerry Fanning," Carava said. "They piled everything along the outside fence, but they failed to cut a path where we brought the horses over from the receiving barn. Grooms would go into the deep mud and come out with just their socks. Me and a couple other assistants got a pretty good laugh, following behind them collecting shoes."

At the age of 80, trainer Jerry Dutton has experienced just about every kind of dicey racetrack man and Mother Nature can brew. Leaving the Santa Anita backstretch late Friday morning, his chocolate Lab in tow, he summoned a couple of vivid images.

"The deepest old track that never seemed to hurt any horses was at Tanforan," Dutton said, referring to the long-gone course in south San Francisco. "They'd sink in to their knees and still run pretty fast - three-quarters in about 1:22.

"Then there was that Bay Meadows track when they pushed all the mud aside," Dutton added. "One of the jocks came around the turn and went right into the pile. I can't remember his name."

It wasn't Larry Gilligan, former rider and now racing official, who came up with his own candidate for worst racing surface.

"It was at the Fair Grounds, in New Orleans, long before they fixed up the racetrack," Gilligan said. "There were a lot of holes in the track, from washouts, and we used to have to race around them. You had to ride heads up."

Mention a hole in the track to Mike Smith and he flashes back to the afternoon at Gulfstream Park when fellow rider Mike McCarthy hit a funny dip while warming up.

"They started pounding around the spot and all of a sudden it caves in," Smith said. "A couple of the guys stood in the hole and disappeared. Can you imagine what would have happened if they hadn't found it before the race? They could have lost half the field in there."

It was 11:50 a.m., 70 minutes before first post, and a light rain was coming down. Smith was walking on the Santa Anita surface with a group of jockeys and management personnel, about to leap into the unknown.

"It should hold up okay today," Smith said. "But once it gets a downpour, I'd be concerned."

He is not alone.