10/20/2003 12:00AM

Grounds crew trying to soften turf


ARCADIA, Calif. - Leif Dickinson, the turf course superintendent at Santa Anita, has the weather service on speed dial these days.

The constant need for updates is not because of potential wet weather for Saturday's Breeders' Cup program. Dickinson is more concerned about the continued warm weather that has caused the turf course to become firmer and quicker than he wants in advance of an event that draws horses from throughout the United States and Europe.

On Monday, Dickinson, who oversees all of the Santa Anita grounds, had the turf course aerated with machines that drive four-inch spikes into the ground four inches apart to help the course breathe and better absorb water when irrigated.

The machines were attached to the backs of small tractors, which moved across the course slower than a lawn mower.

The whole process on the oval and hillside portions of the course was expected to take 14 to 16 hours, and it is done periodically throughout the year, Dickinson said.

With the recent warm weather and a course that has produced fast times, Dickinson used Monday's dark day to treat the turf.

"Last year, I didn't have to do this," Dickinson said. "It didn't tighten up as much.

"All we're doing is spiking it," he said. "We have to do the whole course, because we want it to be even. You don't want a horse racing on a part that has been aerated and another racing over an area that hasn't."

The three Breeders' Cup grass races will be run on ground that has not been used since Sept. 28, the opening day of the meeting. For most of the meeting, temporary rails have been set 8 to 24 feet out from the permanent rails.

From the stands, the course has yellow paths where hoofprints have left marks, but there are very few uneven patches.

One heavy-traffic area is the top of the stretch, where the fields from the hillside races cross over and rejoin the main oval. That portion has more wear and tear than the main stretch or the hillside.

Later in the day, Dickinson planned to extensively irrigate the course - something that has been done frequently in recent days.

Dickinson said the course was watered three times in a 24-hour period ending on Sunday evening. He said the whole procedure could be repeated on Thursday if he is not satisfied with the course's condition.

"Hopefully, this will slow it down some," Dickinson said. "If I can slow it down a second, I'll be happy."

O'Neill on pace to set record for wins

Midway through the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting, Doug O'Neill has a comfortable lead in the trainers' standings and says he has no signs of slowing down.

Through Sunday, O'Neill had saddled 16 winners, well clear of Jeff Mullins, who has won six races. Five trainers are tied with five wins apiece. Through Sunday, O'Neill had won with 15 of his last 32 starters.

The O'Neill stable is within range of breaking the all-time Oak Tree record of 21 wins, set by Bob Baffert in 1998 and 1999.

This fall, O'Neill's stable has 65 horses, the largest it has been. The number makes the 35-year-old trainer comfortable.

"We have enough horses that we expected to participate at a high level," O'Neill said. "I like it because as you turn a horse out, you bring one in that you turned out three months ago. The pressure is off to do the right thing for a horse."

O'Neill will have his first Breeders' Cup starter on Saturday when Decarchy starts in the Mile. Fleetstreet Dancer, the runner-up in the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap on Oct. 4, may start in the $150,000 Seabiscuit Handicap over 1 1/16 miles on the undercard.

Decarchy was acquired by Dennis Narlinger and Rich and Gaby Sulpizio in mid-October. Previously trained by Bobby Frankel, Decarchy arrived at O'Neill's stable on Oct. 11 and will be retired to stud at the Sulpizios' Magali Farms in Santa Ynez, Calif., in 2004.

"They are so excited about his pedigree," O'Neill said. "Anything we can do in the race is gravy."

Decarchy is an outsider in a field that includes major stakes winners from Europe and throughout North America.

Fleetstreet Dancer will also be part of a tough field in the Seabiscuit. The probables include Chinkapin, Excess Summer, Like a Hero, Star Cross, Taste of Paradise, and Truly a Judge.

Fleetstreet Dancer is winless in nine starts, a span that includes placings in six stakes. In his last two starts, Fleetstreet Dancer finished third in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar and second in the Goodwood.

O'Neill said Fleetstreet Dancer's participation depends on how he trains this week.

"He's about 90 percent right now," O'Neill said. "He ran such a hard race. He's back galloping now. We'll enter him if he keeps going better."

Four stakes share weekend with Cup

The Seabiscuit Handicap is one of four six-figure stakes to be run on Friday and Saturday.

Friday's program includes the $100,000 Morvich Handicap over about 6 1/2 furlongs on the hillside turf course. King Robyn, a four-time stakes winner this year, is a leading contender.

Special Matter will attempt to defend his title in Friday's $125,000 Carleton Burke Handicap at 1 1/2 miles on turf. He faces Continental Red, the runner-up in the Del Mar Handicap, and European invaders Labirinto and Researched.

Saturday, Spring Meadow is a leading contender in the $100,000 Very Subtle Handicap for fillies and mares over six furlongs. She has won three stakes this year, beginning with the Las Flores Handicap here in late February.

Injured jockey Puglisi to return Friday

Jockey Iggy Puglisi is expected to return to riding by Friday after being injured in a spill in last Friday's eighth race.

Riding Montanasadixichick, Puglisi was thrown when his mount broke down on the backstretch. Puglisi was taken to Arcadia Methodist Hospital for X-rays and was released that evening.

He did not ride over the weekend, citing bruising to his lower back.

BC forecast: Still warm, but slightly cooler

Saturday's forecast is for continued warm weather, but cooler than conditions at the beginning of the week.

The high temperature on Breeders' Cup Day is expected to reach 78 degrees. Previous forecasts had temperatures in the mid-80's.

Temperatures were in the high 80's and low 90's in recent days at Santa Anita. The warmest Breeders' Cup Day in history was 87 degrees at Gulfstream Park in 1992.