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Everyone's focus on track
ARCADIA, Calif. - The first wave of a series of storms expected to pummel Southern California this weekend hit Santa Anita with light showers about an hour before the first race Friday as track officials held their breath that Cushion Track, which covers the main track, would weather the storms.
The track was sealed following racing on Thursday, and even though the weather was dry Friday morning, the main track was closed for training, with all horses restricted to the infield training track.
"We sealed the racetrack the best we could," said Richard Tedesco, the track superintendent at Santa Anita. "It's still soft. You can still dig into it. We put the seal of all seals on it. It's best we could do."
Sealing is something that was done in advance of storms with Santa Anita's old dirt surface. Cushion Track was installed last summer, with one of its selling points being its ability to whisk water safely from the surface, leaving it dry no matter how inclement the weather.
But Santa Anita's version of Cushion Track has not drained properly, which has resulted in extensive work both before and during this meet, which began Dec. 26. This is uncharted territory for all involved, because no one knows whether a seal will work with Cushion Track, a mixture of sand, fibers, and bits of rubber, all coated with wax.
"No one's ever done this," jockey Mike Smith said during training hours. "Maybe horses will bounce over it like reindeer. On Dasher. On Dancer."
"It's like the Bonneville Salt Flats," added jockey Richard Migliore, who had just walked the surface at the top of the stretch. "They might as well run on this," he said, pointing to the concrete near Clocker's Corner.
Tedesco ran harrows over the track about 11 a.m., leaving a bit of fluff atop the seal.
Shortly before noon, about an hour before the first race, jockeys David Flores and then Aaron Gryder took turns galloping a pony down the home stretch. Then Flores, Gryder, Smith, and fellow jockeys Jon Court, Garrett Gomez, Martin Pedroza, and Alex Solis, along with Jockeys' Guild representative Darrell Haire, met near the finish line with Tedesco, Santa Anita president Ron Charles, and Mike Harlow, Santa Anita's director of racing.
The jockeys said they believed racing would be fine on Friday provided the rain largely held off, but they were concerned about upcoming days.
Early Friday morning, Santa Anita took the first race, scheduled for the downhill turf course, off the grass and moved it to the main track to avoid having the horses cross the main track while moving from the hillside to the infield portion of the turf course.
The first race, run at 6 1/2 furlongs for second-level allowance horses, resulted in a track record over the souped-up surface when Tropic Storm, under Gryder, led from start to finish in 1:13.69. He set fractions of 22.29 seconds, 44.34 seconds, and 1:07.61.
Indian Blessing, others work at Hollywood Park
With the main track closed for training at Santa Anita on Friday, there was far more activity at Hollywood Park, where several trainers based at Santa Anita have moved their better runners in recent days. Included in that bunch is Bob Baffert, who moved Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Indian Blessing to Hollywood Park, where on Friday she worked six furlongs in 1:10, the best time of 29 at the distance.
Indian Blessing is scheduled to make her first start of the year on Jan. 13 in the Grade 2, $150,000 Santa Ynez Stakes at seven furlongs for 3-year-old fillies.
There were 141 horses who worked at Hollywood Park on Friday, including Champs Elysee, the runner-up in the Hollywood Turf Cup. He went five furlongs in 1:01.40 for trainer Bobby Frankel.
Both Romance Is Diane (1:13.20) and Tough Tiz's Sis (1:11.40) worked six furlongs in preparation for the Grade 2, $150,000 El Encino Stakes for 4-year-old fillies on Jan. 13.
By contrast, only 47 horses worked at Santa Anita on the infield training track.
Horsemen giving management a pass
The ongoing drainage problem with Santa Anita's main track has not caused a rift between Santa Anita management and locally based trainers, who by and large have praised Santa Anita for trying to resolve a problem trainers believe was caused by Cushion Track Footings, the manufacturer of the surface.
"I hope for Ron Charles's sake they can fix it, because this could not happen to a nicer guy," said Jenine Sahadi, a two-time Breeders' Cup winner. "He's doing everything possible, trying to get a safe track. It's distressing that he put in all this time and energy, and this is the hand he was dealt."
Earlier in the week, Cushion Track Footings said it would install a new surface at Santa Anita at the end of the meet if the drainage problem is not solved.
Mike Machowsky said the California Horse Racing Board, which mandated the switch to synthetic surfaces in 2006, and board chairman Richard Shapiro "need to step up and take responsibility."
"They mandated this, and it cost a lot of money," Machowsky said. "I feel sorry for Ron Charles and the racing office."
Despite the problems with drainage, trainers said the surface has been excellent for training.
"It's a little fast, but it's been real good to the horses," Dan Hendricks said.
Lochinvar's Gold makes return
Lochinvar's Gold, who displayed plenty of talent in three starts before going to the sidelines last year, is one of several promising runners in Sunday's eighth race, a first-level allowance for older fillies and mares going 6 1/2 furlongs.
Lochinvar's Gold finished in the money in all three of her starts, her lone win coming against maidens at Santa Anita. She has not raced since May, when she finished second in an allowance race on Cushion Track at Hollywood Park.
"She's had chronic shin problems," her trainer, Cliff Sise Jr., said Friday morning. "She's not made real well, but she's got talent."
Lochinvar's Gold, 5, did not get to the races until she was 4. For her comeback, she has a steady series of works, including a six-furlong drill in 1:10 on Dec. 23.
"She was supposed to go in 1:14 flat that day," Sise said. "That was like a race. It took her a few days to bounce back."
In addition to Lochinvar's Gold, the race includes the imported Sierra Nosta, who won her lone start by eight lengths in April in Brazil. She is now trained by Paulo Lobo, who trains many South American imports and has an excellent strike rate with layoff runners.