01/03/2006 12:00AM

Feeling those wet-track blues


ARCADIA, Calif. - Anyone who thought that Santa Anita Park had paid for all its sins during last year's rainswept meet were rudely awakened over the long holiday weekend with back-to-back storms that dropped four inches in three days and turned the main track into undercooked chocolate pudding.

The man in charge of maintaining some semblance of a safe racing surface is Steve Woods, and after 17 years as Santa Anita track superintendent, you would think he would have seen it all. But last weekend's one-two punch of rainstorms gave him something new to talk about.

"I've worked here for a long time, and I haven't seen that much water sitting on top of the track for a long, long time," Woods said on a clear Tuesday morning, referring to the racing Monday. "It rained so hard during the races that we couldn't float it off fast enough."

The storm to which Woods referred was the same one that millions of television viewers witnessed during the 117th Rose Parade that splashed through nearby Pasadena on Monday morning. According to Chamber of Commerce regulations, rain is not allowed to fall on the Rose Parade - the last time it happened was 1955 - which means Santa Anita is usually spared as well.

Track maintenance is a dicey game at best, relying on a tricky combination of blind luck and technology. The luck was all sour on Saturday, when Woods and his crew found themselves in a wet hole from the start, as the first storm rolled in during the early part of the program. According to Woods, there was no chance to give the track a protective seal.

"You've got to have at least 15/100ths of an inch of rain on the track to seal it safely, otherwise it ends up too hard," Woods explained. "That's why I couldn't seal it before the races. Then, after the races started, we got a quarter of an inch in about 15 minutes. As a result, the track ended up getting a lot more water than it would have. By the end of Monday's card, it was pretty well saturated."

Woods is looking at a week of clear weather ahead, which gives him a chance to return the track to dry and fast gradually.

"We're grading it today to get it even, because floating it for three days got it uneven and warped, and pushed a lot of track to the inside," Woods said. "We'll crack it open a quarter of an inch, then as it dries crack it open more.

"Last year it rained for eight straight days right after the start of the meet," Woods added. "We ended up with four feet of rain during the meet. Compared to that, this has been a vacation so far."

A few horses actually loved the sloppy, muddy surface - Awesome Lady, out of a mare by Conquistador Cielo, could have gone around again in Saturday's Monrovia Handicap - but mostly the winners were those brave animals who hated it less than the others. Call it the Russian model of victory - winning by attrition.

If her rider is to be believed, Pussycat Doll disliked last Saturday's racetrack so much that she won the seven-furlong La Brea Stakes by only 5 3/4 lengths under Garrett Gomez.

"That's what the Garrett told us," said owner Mike Pegram. "He said he didn't want to sound cocky, but she didn't like that track at all. The good ones, they handle anything."

Pussycat Doll, trained by Bob Baffert, has definitely become one of Pegram's good ones, with 3 stakes wins in her last 4 starts.

"Her race kind of reminded me of the Silverbulletday days," Pegram said, referring to his champion filly of 1998 and 1999. "She did it with that kind of authority."

Pussycat Doll also gave Pegram his first Grade 1 stakes victory as a breeder. Her dam, Hookedonthefeelin, won the 1999 La Brea for Pegram, while her sire is Pegram's 1998 champion and Derby-Preakness winner, Real Quiet.

"As much as Real Quiet has meant to me, he is truly the gift that keeps on giving," Pegram said.

It should be noted that Pussycat Doll was available to all comers at the 2003 Keeneland September yearling sale, but there were no serious takers.

"At the time we were trying to make Real Quiet as a stallion, so we were selling some of his foals," Pegram said. "But nobody liked her - except her trainer. Bobby wanted her, so we bought her back at $100,000. If it had gone into some serious money, we'd have been doing some serious thinking."

Winning the same major stakes twice is a handsome feat for any owner. Winning the same event twice with a mother and daughter puts Pegram in a rare kind of territory usually occupied only by breeders named Phipps and Whitney.

Pegram is determined, however, not to let the breeding end of the business bog him down. He sold Hookedonthefeelin at auction in November of 2002 for $1,525,000, although he did keep her first foal, Pussycat Doll.

"I think there's a good possibility that she won't ever see the inside of a sales ring," Pegram said. "Even I'm smart enough to know that when you see that Grade 1 in two straight generations of a family, that's something you don't get rid of, unless you absolutely have to."