11/03/2005 1:00AM

Grass hardly greener this year

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Four of the 10 races on Sunday's $1,325,000 California Cup program will be contested on the Santa Anita Park grass course. Fans of local turf racing are advised to bet early and often, and maybe even set your VCR's, because once the Cal Cup Distance Handicap, Starter Handicap, Distaff, and Mile are in the books, that's a wrap. No more grass racing in Southern California until at least the start of the Santa Anita winter meeting on Dec. 26.

The announcement came on Monday like a kick in the gut. Hollywood Park's new management, the Bay Meadows Land Co., pulled the plug on its autumn turf program because the newly installed grass course failed to take root.

To refresh the memory, here is an excerpt from the news release dated last July 20, issued by the old Hollywood Park ownership (Churchill Downs Inc.) two weeks after the intended sale to Bay Meadows Land Co. was announced:

"The project . . . will completely revamp the one-mile oval with a new drainage system, a new growing medium and a shift from Bermuda to SeaDwarf¬ Seashore Paspalum . . .

"Renovation of the track is scheduled to be completed well in advance of the 31-day Autumn Meet at Hollywood Park, which opens Nov. 9."

As it turned out, not much of that release came true. Turf course experts not associated with the Hollywood project noted that Seashore Paspalum had never been used on a turf course, and suggested that it was probably an inappropriate choice in the first place.

It has been a bad year for racing surfaces all across the land. Even before Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma began wreaking their havoc, there were Thoroughbred racing cancellations because of weather and/or track conditions at Aqueduct, Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Turf Paradise, Turfway, Mountaineer, Charles Town, Philadelphia Park, Penn National, Beulah, Delaware, Evangeline, Laurel, Calder, Saratoga, and Thistledown.

Racetrack operators are a plucky bunch, however, so you know if they could have raced, they would have raced.

Once, in Phoenix, an old-fashioned winter gully-washer reduced the Turf Paradise main track to unraceable goo. The solution was to run all the races on the perfectly drained grass course until the main track recovered.

And then there was the Great Spill at Hollywood Park, when a therapeutic equine swimming pool perched on a rise overlooking the backstretch sloshed thousands of gallons of water down the hill and onto the main track during an earthquake. The dirt was disabled for a day, but the show went on when all the races were switched to the untroubled turf course.

Earlier this week, Delta Downs announced the cancellation of its $1 million Delta Jackpot Stakes, a 2-year-old race that is starting to catch on with owners and trainers on both coasts. The fourth running was scheduled for Dec. 2, but then along came Rita, and the 2005 Delta Downs meeting was blown off the map, mostly because of stable area damage. Delta's dates will be run at Evangeline Downs.

Similarly, the loss of grass racing at Hollywood Park has eliminated such events as the Matriarch Stakes, the Citation Handicap, the Hollywood Derby and the Hollywood Turf Cup, all races rich in tradition and significance. The difference is that the Hollywood show - at least on the dirt - will go on.

Mother Nature, however, had nothing to do with Hollywood's grass cancellation. Since the new sod was rolled out in August, the weather has been just fine. Fingers are being pointed as to why the grass failed, including a volley from Environmental Turf, which sold Hollywood the sod, claiming that the new grass was not properly fertilized or maintained.

"During a grow-in of Seashore Paspalum you should use a commercial grade granule fertilizer," said Stacie Zinn, international marketing director for Environmental Turf. "We were told they were using a liquid fertilizer rather than a granular. And there were other examples like that."

Hollywood Park management is still dealing with the fallout from the failure of the new grass to take root, so the story will continue to unfold. The name in the middle of the tempest, though, is John Barrios, Hollywood Park's turf course superintendent, who wasn't sure how much he could say about the situation when reached in his office on Thursday.

"To me, the hardest part was letting go, and accepting the fact that the grass was just too immature, and it was getting too late," Barrios said. "The burden I was carrying, I felt that I not only let our team down here, but also horsemen and the entire industry."

Saturday soiree for Tranquility Farm

There is plenty of grass in the white-fenced paddocks of Tranquility Farm, located 70 miles north of Santa Anita near the town of Tehachapi, where such well-known old battlers as Southern Wish, I Love Silver, Skylaunch, River Rhythm, Mellow Fellow, Menacing Dennis, Snipledo and Yukon Robbery, among many others, live in safe and carefree retirement.

Tranquility Farm and the Oak Tree Foundation are inviting horsemen and fans to cocktails and hors d'oeuvres in the Santa Anita Turf Club following the races at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, to celebrate the retired horses and raise money for their support through an auction of stallion seasons and fine art. Even if this reporter weren't a member of the Tranquility Farm board of directors, it sounds like a good way to spend Cal Cup Eve.