03/04/2010 12:00AM

Eyes both on the sky and underfoot

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The Santa Anita Handicap has never been afraid of a little wet weather.

Just ask the folks who were there in 1968, the year Mr. Right dropped his dark head and plowed through the mud to beat Jungle Road, Ala Ram, and Quicken Tree in 2:04.60 for the 1 1/4 miles. Good ones like O'Hara and Tumble Wind were eased, the going was so nasty.

Likewise, it is impossible to forget the sight of leggy Stardust Mel and little Out of the East bouncing off each through a plowed field that passed for a racetrack in 1975, rimmed as it was by the piled scrapings of a racing cushion that was never going to dry. They finished a nose apart, essentially holding each other up, in 2:06.40.

And who can forget the way Spectacular Bid defied the elements in 1980, knifing through a cold, driving rain, gray on gray, his feet slapping a track packed as hard as a California interstate. The four horses in his wake straggled under the wire like weary evacuees, spent from the experience of chasing a great champion under hellish conditions.

There is rain predicted again for Saturday, when the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap is scheduled to top a program chock-full of quality. Given the recent behavior of Santa Anita's synthetic main-track surface, however, there were very real concerns that the amount of rain anticipated would render parts of the surface unraceable, and that the actual running of the Handicap would be jeopardized for the first time in its 75-year history.

We are talking serious rain, sports fans. Not the two-tenths of an inch that fell in the wee hours of Thursday, when nature stopped acting like an hysterical teenager and provided the Santa Anita main course with the kind of measured spritzing every surface loves and needs. Depending upon which weather girl was at the green screen, anywhere from one to two inches was being predicted for Saturday by people who have been eerily correct this winter in reading the skies.

"Just this once I really wish they'd be wrong," said Rich Tedesco, Santa Anita's track superintendent, as he gazed out upon the track from his quarter-pole cupola Thursday morning.

For the past three seasons, Tedesco has been in the eye of the racing surface storm at Santa Anita, both figuratively and literally. He came on board at the behest of track chief Ron Charles in late 2007, when the original installation of a Cushion Track surface was starting to go terribly wrong, and helped guide the Pro-Ride replacement track through two runnings of the Breeders' Cup and a relatively uneventful 2008-2009 winter meet before the sweeping storms of 2010 rendered those memories moot.

Tedesco and his crew have spent the last three seasons reinventing a wheel that was never thoroughly road-tested in the first place, essentially practicing field medicine.

"We got to talking the other day about all the different things we've done to maintain the surfaces, and there were some even I'd forgotten about," Tedesco said. "It's been a real challenge."

At this point, the tools at Tedesco's disposal to keep Saturday's card afloat are limited. He uses a vertical aerator to facilitate drainage, and he is prepared to unfurl a plastic tarp to protect the entire surface during the onset of the storm. At some point, though, it will be raining during the races, and maybe raining hard.

Through it all, Tedesco has maintained an almost Zen-like serenity through the most intense pressures a track superintendent could experience.

"I try to keep my guys laughing," Tedesco said. "Even when everybody's wondering if we're going to run or not, I don't let it bother me. I tell them, let's just go to work, because whatever's going to happen, it's not going to happen until we do something. So let's get out there."

Tedesco, 72, has the calloused hands and look of a man who has spent 90 percent of his life outdoors. He is a local L.A. boy, raised across town in Inglewood, where he was heir apparent to his father's construction business. Eventually, the U.S. Army got in the way, sending Tedesco to Ft. Knox in Kentucky, where the young soldier strayed to Louisville long enough to witness the 1960 Derby victory of Venetian Way.

"That was it," Tedesco said. "I was hooked. I got out of the service, came home and went back to work in construction. But then I almost got killed twice - I was down in a 40-foot ditch one time and the whole thing came in on me - so I had to get out of that."

Tedesco got himself on a waiting list for an opening with the Hollywood Park track crew, no easy task.

"No one ever left in those days," Tedesco said. "The money and the work was so good. A guy had what they thought was a heart attack, so they called and promised me three weeks. I stayed there 37 years."

After leaving Hollywood Park, and before Santa Anita called, Tedesco started his own company. Among his clients was a member of the Saudi royal family, for whom Tedesco constructed a 2,400-meter race course, a 1,600-meter uphill gallop, and an entire African village.

"He loved Africa, and wanted everything to be authentic, right down to the animals roaming around," Tedesco said.

When the current meet ends, Tedesco will go to work for Del Mar, riding herd over the synthetic Polytrack surface there. His status with Santa Anita will depend upon whether or not the current course is replaced with dirt, an issue that is being bounced around like a beachball.

"If they go back to dirt, I've agreed to help in the transition," Tedesco said. "But right now, I've got to go check on that tarp."