04/20/2008 11:00PM

First real breath of spring


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - A grim winter racing season is mercifully in the rear-view mirror, which means Southern California horsemen and horseplayers can welcome a return to normality when Hollywood Park opens on Wednesday.

The 60-day spring-summer meet at Hollywood begins with a reliable racing surface and a traditional Wednesday-through-Sunday schedule, two attributes that were missing during a wet, messy winter at Santa Anita. Synthetic-surface debates continue to simmer, but Hollywood's racing secretary, Martin Panza, is right when he describes the Cushion Track at Hollywood as largely unbiased.

"From a gambling standpoint, this meet plays fair," Panza said. "If horses work good in the morning, they run good in the afternoon. There is consistency in the form. This is the fairest of the [synthetic] tracks."

While Del Mar and Santa Anita have struggled with consistency and drainage issues, dry weather and mild temperatures have allowed Cushion Track at Hollywood to remain relatively bias-free.

That will not make handicapping any easier at the start of the meet. Early-season Hollywood runners will be analyzed based on form established at Santa Anita, where a severe bias affected main-track racing. For the past two months, the Santa Anita rail was a virtual deathtrap, particularly in the final quarter-mile.

Horses who were compromised by the bias, such as Wednesday's race-5 pacesetter Native Success, might be upgraded. Likewise, the rally-wide profile will make some horses appear to have run better than they actually did.

The Hollywood spring-summer season will last through July 13, and it will be the track's fourth meet since Cushion Track was installed for the 2006 fall season. Relative to Polytrack at Del Mar and the Pro-Ride/Cushion Track mixture at Santa Anita, the synthetic track at Hollywood more closely resembles dirt in terms of how it plays. Last summer at Hollywood, the inside lanes on the main track were fine.

Some races at Hollywood, however, might be influenced by course nuances. That includes a potential trap for the favorite in the opening-day Grade 3 Wilshire Handicap, a mile turf race for fillies and mares. The Wilshire will be the second U.S. start for European import Diamond Diva, who scored a splashy victory March 30 when she won a $77,000 overnight stakes by nearly two lengths for trainer Jim Cassidy.

The form of that stakes was flattered when the third-place finisher, Black Mamba, returned Saturday to miss by a nose in the Grade 2 Santa Barbara. The problem for Diamond Diva on Wednesday is not the class hike, but rather her outside post. A four-time winner in 13 starts, Diamond Diva drew post 10 of 10 on Wednesday. Barring scratches, it spells trouble.

In one-mile turf races the past decade at Hollywood Park, posts 10 and out have produced only 8 wins from 214 starts, less than 4 percent. Barring scratches, Diamond Diva faces a tough test winning from the outside under David Flores. Diamond Diva enters as the 117-pound topweight.

If the favorite does not overcome the post, then Kris' Sis could upset. Beaten a length last time in the Grade 2 Santa Ana Handicap, Kris' Sis shortens from 1 1/8 miles, while dropping in class and adding blinkers. Trainer Richard Baltas described her last two works with blinkers as "superb, both works were very easy."

Kris' Sis will be ridden by Michael Baze, leading rider last summer at Hollywood. Rafael Bejarano, leading rider this winter at Santa Anita, will ride his first spring-summer meet at Hollywood. Bejarano will ride Gentle Gale in the Wilshire. Other contenders include Colina Verde, La Tee, and Unspoken Word.

A significant comeback attempt will take place Sunday when Lava Man returns from a six-month layoff in the $150,000 TVG Khaled Stakes. At 1 1/8 miles on turf, the Khaled may be the best race on the all-statebred California Gold Rush card, and it may upstage the $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes for 3-year-olds at a 1 1/8 miles on the main track.

Lava Man has won the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup the past three years. The 2008 running is June 28. With four stakes on the Gold Cup card, it simplifies the job of a racing secretary.

"We're stacked on Gold Cup Day," Panza said, adding that "American Oaks-CashCall Mile Day is another day we're stacked."

The July 5 American Oaks card has five stakes, including the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile Championship.

The spring-summer meet is characterized by waves of 2-year-olds, and the first race of the season is a 4 1/2-furlong juvenile race led by Jean Pierre-Dupuis trainee J.P. Dupuis, a son of first-crop sire Momentum.

The only thing missing from the baby race Wednesday is a Walther Solis-trained runner. Solis won 5 of the 8 2-year-old races this winter at Santa Anita, and he promises there are more to follow.

"We're going to skip one or two weeks, but we have a bunch of nice ones coming up," Solis said. He has 20 unraced juveniles nearing their debut. "Starting May 8, everybody's going to be ready."