08/16/2007 12:00AM

First Classic of synthetic era


DEL MAR, Calif. - With only 16 runnings in the books, the Pacific Classic is still a babe in arms, at least by the standards imposed upon racing's best events. Some of us still own clothes from 1991, the year it was invented.

But while it might not have the yellowed news clips attached to a Jockey Club Gold Cup or a Metropolitan Handicap, the Pacific Classic has been able to boast one thing that should be admired in spite of its relative youth. Run for a million dollars at 1 1/4 miles, under weights assigned strictly by age, the conditions of the Classic have held firm since it began. No tinkering has been tolerated.

The same cannot be said of a race like New York's historic Woodward, which has been run since 1954. It has been offered at eight, nine, 10, and 12 furlongs, as a handicap and weight-for-age, at Belmont Park, Aqueduct and now Saratoga. Surprisingly, the spelling of "Woodward" has remained the same.

The Philip Iselin Handicap, to be run on Saturday at Monmouth Park in direct bicoastal competition with the Pacific Classic, began in the 19th century as the Monmouth Handicap, became the Amory L. Haskell Handicap in the 1960s, briefly reverted to the Monmouth Handicap, then finally emerged as the Iselin in 1986. Along the way it has been run at 1o1/4 miles, 1 1/8 miles and 1 1/16 miles, but at least it could always be found at Monmouth Park.

Alas, nothing seems to be sacred, although the Longacres Mile, to be run on Sunday for a beefed-up $400,000 purse, has been the Longacres Mile since started in 1935, and can hardly be blamed for the fact that it had to be run for two years at Yakima while Emerald Downs was being built after Boeing bought and then bulldozed Longacres.

To its credit, the Californian at Hollywood Park always has been the Californian at Hollywood Park, and for the bulk of its history it was run at 1 1/16 miles on the main track, surrendering to such transcendent champions as Swaps, Dr. Fager and Affirmed. In 1980 it was lengthened to nine furlongs to accommodate Spectacular Bid. Then in 1985, after the oval was stretched from a mile to 1 1/8 miles, the Californian became a one-mile event from a chute with a temporary finish line. The last 21 runnings have gone back to nine furlongs, or once around, and this year it was run on Cushion Track.

Things change, even underfoot, which is why a sharp line will be drawn through the history of the Pacific Classic between the runnings of 2006 and 2007. Name, distance, purse and address will be the same, and perhaps even the name of the winner, if Lava Man strikes again. The difference, a significant one, is the ground beneath his feet, for this will be Pacific Classic I on the synthetic Polytrack.

It is Polytrack, no doubt, that has expanded the talent pool from which this year's Classic has drawn. Chief among those horses is Student Council, a 5-year-old son of Kingmambo who has been freshly acquired by owner Ro Parra from breeder Will Farish. Vladimir Cerin has taken over for Neil Howard, who ran Student Council 20 times.

"He's a neat horse," Cerin said Thursday from Del Mar. "He's got a lot of scope to him, very intelligent, and he took to the track great, like he's been here a million times before. I don't know Neil Howard, but he must be a good trainer because this horse doesn't have a pimple on him."

What Student Council does have is two victories over Polytrack surfaces at Keeneland and Turfway Park. His lone stakes win came over conventional dirt at Sam Houston Park in the Maxxam Gold Cup last January, and he also finished a solid second to Magna Graduate in the Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

"I think he's been to more racetracks than I have," Cerin said. "The wins over Polytrack is pretty important, although this Polytrack has some differences. It's definitely slower from morning to afternoon, so we'll give him a little blowout before the race, to let him get used to the surface at race speed."

Student Council also will get what all Cerin's horses get before they race or train over the clingy Del Mar Polytrack. He will have his hooves spritzed with Pam, the nonstick cooking spray, to prevent any possible waxy buildup. Pam, as everyone knows, stands for Product of Arthur Meyerhoff.

"The Polytrack does stick a little bit to their hooves," Cerin said. "In the paddock, before they race, we clean their hooves one last time and spray them with Pam. That's why I want to see Student Council blow out . . . with Pam."

In his most recent start, on July 8, Student Council was beaten a head by Brass Hat in a track-record performance going 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs. That effort alone puts him in the thick of the Pacific Classic superfecta, at the very least, and Cerin adds to the package with Richard Migliore at the controls.

"He's really smart," Cerin said. "He's got big-game experience, as they say. I'm lucky to have him."

Just keep him away from the Pam.