09/25/2007 12:00AM

A different scene this year

Alex Evers/Horsephotos
The newly installed Cushion Track at Santa Anita will get its first test during a six-week meet that includes Breeders' Cup prep races.
ARCADIA, Calif. - The six-week Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita begins Wednesday, and the autumn leaves are not the only signs of change during this short racing season. There are at least two others.

One will be a source of anxiety for horsemen and handicappers. The dirt track at Santa Anita is gone, and replaced with a new synthetic material called Cushion Track, which was initially greeted with positive reviews by horsemen.

The other is the apparent resolution of a simmering grudge. Santa Anita's owner, Frank Stronach, and the Oak Tree Racing Association, which leases the track each fall, are at peace. Oak Tree and Santa Anita signed an agreement to extend the Oak Tree lease through 2016. That means there is stability to the Southern California racing calendar, right?

"I'd like to say that, but I'm not sure it would be true," Oak Tree's executive vice-president, Sherwood Chillingworth, said.

Make no mistake - Chillingworth is glad Oak Tree is staying home at Santa Anita, where it has held a fall meet each year since 1969. But everything is changing these days in California. Synthetic surfaces are in, Hollywood Park is all but out, and where the racing dates eventually fall over the next few years is open to discussion.

The only certainty is that Oak Tree at Santa Anita will be the site of top-quality racing for the next six weeks, until the meet ends Nov. 4. The meet will feature Breeders' Cup prep races the first two weekends of the meet, and the $1.3 million California Cup Day on Saturday, Nov. 3.

Intentionally or otherwise, the first race of the Oak Tree meet on Wednesday is symbolic - a two-turn claiming race on the new Cushion Track. The circuit is now complete - all three major Southern California tracks, including Del Mar, now have a synthetic racing surface.

But whereas neither Hollywood Park nor Del Mar ran a main-track route race until the second day of their first synthetic meet, Oak Tree begins its meet smack in front of everyone - a Cushion Track route as the first race of the season, for better or worse.

It is the most significant modification to California racing, in the name of safety. But the unfortunate breakdown Monday of a top 2-year-old colt, Drill Down, is yet another reminder of the fragility of the Thoroughbred, and the sport.

"No one knows precisely why horses break down, whether they step in a hole, or take a bad step," Chillingworth said. "And as much as I feel sorry for the owners and the trainer, you have to look at the long-term picture, and that is that more horses are staying sound" on synthetic surfaces.

The opening-day card is a good example of the benefit of a synthetic surface - big fields top to bottom. That includes the Grade 3 Sen. Ken Maddy Handicap. Fourteen fillies and mares entered the 6 1/2-furlong turf sprint, which is a good race even without the same Breeders' Cup ramifications as graded stakes the first two weekends.

Attima is expected to start favored in the Maddy, her first start since February. A graded stakes winner trained by Julio Canani, Attima needed time off.

"She bled through the nose," Canani said, so he took her out of serious training. "She came around quickly this fall. She looks like a good filly, because she is a good filly."

Good should be good enough Wednesday in the Maddy, where Dancing Edie is the 122-pound top-weight despite a career spent mostly around two turns. Fantastic Spring will set the pace as she moves from a second-level allowance into a graded stakes. Graded-stakes-placed Strong Faith will rally from behind.

The Maddy is on turf, but a big question Wednesday is how will the new main track play? Trainer Jay Robbins will start likely favorite Johnny Eves in race 3, a six-furlong allowance. After a runner-up finish in a fast race at Del Mar, Johnny Eves is live.

"I would be more 'live' if I had not drawn the rail," Robbins said.

The well-regarded maiden Zilla makes her debut in race 6, and if she runs like she trains, the daughter of Stormy Atlantic can give trainer Bruce Headley another debut winner after he won twice late in the Del Mar meet with first-time starters.

And if there is a shift at the top of the stakes ranks, it will happen early. The opening Saturday stakes action includes three Grade 1's Saturday - the Oak Leaf Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, Yellow Ribbon for turf fillies and mares, and Goodwood for older horses. The Norfolk Stakes, in which Drill Down would have been favored, will be run Sunday.

The Oak Tree wagering format includes two $1 pick fours, and a $1 pick five on the last five races of the day.