09/13/2006 11:00PM

Early returns positive for new track


The initial review is in, from none other than the trainer of California's best older horse. Doug O'Neill, gives Hollywood Park's new synthetic surface two thumbs up, way up.

"I love it," O'Neill said Thursday morning after training horses on Hollywood's Cushion Track surface, which opened for training on Wednesday. The track's fall race meeting opens Nov. 1

"Visually, it looks the same as the old surface," O'Neill said. "It's the same color. Horses just seem to skip over it. I worked about 15 or 20 of my horses on it on Wednesday. They all worked well, they got something out of it, and their legs are cold and tight this morning. On paper, and in reality, it seems kinder on horses, and I think it's only going to get better. There's no renovation break. They're on it from 5:30 in the morning until 9:30, and it seems the same."

O'Neill said he is so impressed with the new surface that he has moved Horse of the Year candidate Lava Man back to Hollywood Park to train for his next start, which now most likely will be the Grade 2, $500,000 Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap at 1 1/8 miles at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting on Oct. 7. O'Neill originally had planned on training Lava Man at Santa Anita in order to keep him on that track's conventional dirt surface. He also had considered the Grade 1, $250,000 Clement Hirsch Turf Championship at 1 1/4 miles on Sept. 30 as a possible next race. His ultimate goal is the 1 1/4-mile Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs.

Gary Mandella, like O'Neill a trainer who is based year-round at Hollywood, has taken a more circumspect approach in terms of training his horses over the new surface, which was installed in recent weeks.

"I think it's going to take a couple of days to settle in," Mandella said. "It'll be Sunday or Monday before I let any of my horses really work on it. They galloped pretty easy the first day, and I let them gallop right along today. I like the way horses go over it.

"It seems different than Polytrack," Mandella said, referring to the synthetic surface installed at Turfway Park, Woodbine, and now Keeneland. "It seems like they leave a little more footprint on this. But I'm not saying it gets chewed up like a regular track. After three hours on this, it looks better than Del Mar did 10 minutes after a renovation break."

Cushion Track is made of synthetic fibers, elastic fiber, and granulated rubber, all of which are coated in wax.

The California Horse Racing Board has mandated that all Thoroughbred tracks in the state that hold at least four weeks of continuous racing must install synthetic surfaces by the end of 2007. Hollywood Park is the first to make the change. Del Mar is desirous of doing so before its race meeting next summer. Del Mar has yet to decide on which surface it will install. The track is expected to apply next month to the California Coastal Commission for approval to install a synthetic surface, a process Del Mar must undertake because of its proximity to the ocean.