05/25/2007 11:00PM

Grass races no walk in the park


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Believe it or not, with all the time and treasure spent on synthetic main track surfaces in California lately, there is still a small corner of the racing universe dedicated to the proposition that there are both horseplayers and animals who enjoy the idea of competition on good old-fashioned grass.

Some of the best will be in action on Monday, when the Hollywood Park holiday program is topped by a pair of $300,000 turf events. In the seventh on the card, the boys go at each other in the Shoemaker Mile, while two races later, six fine older fillies and mares take the stage in the nine-furlong Gamely, featuring unbeaten Vacare and the Bobby Frankel runners Citronnade and Price Tag.

An impartial observer might look outside and expect that both races would be run over a lush carpet of robust Bermuda. If the history of turf courses in Southern California is any kind of gauge, however, the only conclusion to be drawn is that grass is difficult to grow, and once grown almost impossible to maintain.

Don't laugh. Tales of a benign West Coast climate are wildly exaggerated. The flash floods of spring wash away any remnants of arable topsoil, leaving behind bitter bedrock and lime-tainted watering holes. The summers descend with a fury, frying dry, desolate mesas with levels of heat more familiar to the Australian outback. Humidity is nonexistent, hovering in the single digits, sucking any trace of moisture from the ground. Autumn, of course, is fire and earthquake season - don't let's get started there - and then comes the winter, harsh and unforgiving, blighted by fierce storms featuring California's infamous "black sleet," a scourging mix of hellish winds, sub-zero temperatures and nuclear waste.

Despite these dire meteorological challenges, Santa Anita Park, after much trial and error, has been able to establish a grass course that seems to hold up well through weather, wear and tear, during both the main meet early in the year and the Oak Tree meet in the fall. Del Mar, tapping into similar technology, is getting there slowly but surely. And then there is Hollywood Park.

It was barely 20 months ago, in late October of 2005, when the racing world awoke one morning to the news that Hollywood Park would have no turf racing at its 2005 Autumn Turf Festival. The new course installed that summer had failed to take root. Mild panic ensued, the offending turf was ripped out, and the track - under new ownership at the time - was faced with the installation of another new course in time for its April 2006 opening.

Horses are currently running their third meet over the replacement course. To be kind, it has looked better, but if anything the condition has improved over the early portion of the season, when the ground was simply too hard. Even though the Hollywood course maintenance crew has been diligently at work, riders find that some horses still do not enjoy the ground as much as others. They refer to kickback, and to long-standing "soft spots" - notably at the 5 1/2-furlong mark - where horses must be held together lest they bobble.

Nothing, though, seems to bother Three Degrees. Now 5 and a dazzling dappled gray daughter of Singspiel, she handled the Hollywood turf course both before and after the series of renovations began. Monday's Gamely should be no different. She is consistently in the mix at the top of the division, and usually has to be dealt with at some point in her races. Now, all she needs to do is win one.

It has been just shy of two years since Three Degrees took the Honeymoon Handicap at nine furlongs on the Hollywood grass. Since then, she has hit the board in such major West Coast events as the Del Mar Oaks, the Palomar Handicap, the Yellow Ribbon, and the Matriarch, each time needing only a little break to make things go the other way. Three Degrees made her most recent start on Jan. 7 in the San Gorgonio Handicap at Santa Anita, finishing third to Citronnade.

"She ran really well in the Matriarch, getting beat just a nose," said Paddy Gallagher, who trains Three Degrees for a partnership that includes Chuck Winner, David Bienstock, and a syndicate of owners formed by Aron Wellman.

As for the Matriarch, run last November, it was really half a length, but it felt like a nose the way Price Tag practically tumbled out of the sky to catch Three Degrees right on the wire.

Though from different parts of Ireland, Gallagher and Three Degrees have been a good match for going on three years. He knows what she needs and when she needs it.

"She ran a little bit flat in the San Gorgonio." Gallagher noted. "Didn't kick in like she usually does. So we decided to maybe freshen her up a little bit."

Not surprisingly, Gallagher said that Three Degrees has been training well over the synthetic surface at Hollywood Park. All grass horses seems to train well over Cushion Track. And why not? With its reduced kickback and more forgiving surface, it's what turf courses were meant to be.