12/20/2006 12:00AM

Handle, field size increase, thanks to Cushion Track

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Alex Evers/Horsephotos
Showing Up, the winner of the Hollywood Derby, was named horse of the meeting.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The launch of racing on a synthetic surface at Hollywood Park at the track's 36-day fall meeting that ended on Monday resulted in an increase in handle, a dramatic rise in field size, and an improvement in the quality of racing.

But another important category, ontrack attendance, declined compared to the 2005 fall meeting.

The ontrack average handle reached $1.4 million, an increase of 8 percent over 2005, according to a statement released by the track. All-sources average handle, including statewide, nationwide, and telephone and Internet betting, was $9.8 million, a gain of 14 percent over the $8.6 million average of the 27-day fall meeting in 2006.

Purses averaged $387,754, a gain of 16 percent over 2005. And more horses were running for that prize money.

Average field size grew from 7.4 in 2006 to 8.5 this year, an indication of the enthusiastic response from horsemen for the new Cushion Track synthetic surface, which was installed in late summer.

"I think what we're most satisfied with is the racing surface," said vice president and general manager Eual Wyatt Jr. "It has been almost unanimously endorsed by the trainers and the jockeys.

"There was a learning curve on how to take care of it. I think we have it pretty well figured out, and we look forward to winter training here and next summer's race meeting. We will be full for winter training, and that hasn't happened since I came here in 1979."

The track ran more maiden special weight races for 2-year-olds during the fall meeting and was able to card several allowance races for 2-year-olds that had not been offered as frequently in past years. It was commonplace for maiden claiming races to draw fields of 10 or more.

No horses were euthanized as a result of injuries suffered in races on the synthetic track during the fall meeting, compared to seven on the main track during the 2005 fall meeting, Wyatt said. Three horses were euthanized as a result of injuries suffered during training on the synthetic track in recent months, he said.

The purse pool, Wyatt said, "will be underpaid" for the meeting, but he did not say to what extent. It was not clear if the underpayment would be large enough to warrant a retroactive purse increase or if the additional funds would be carried forward to the 2007 fall meeting.

Average ontrack attendance fell 8 percent, to 4,790. There was no day with at least 10,000 in attendance during the entire fall meeting. The drop in attendance puzzles track officials.

"I have no idea" why attendance fell, Wyatt said. "It's a little confounding."

Jockey Garrett Gomez returned from six months of riding in New York and Kentucky to win the riding title with 35 winners, four more than runner-up Victor Espinoza. Gomez missed the weekend of the Breeders' Cup in November and three days in December for a brief vacation.

Doug O'Neill led all trainers with 24 wins, a record for the fall meeting. He finished two victories in front of John Sadler.

Showing Up, the winner of the Hollywood Derby on Nov. 26, was named horse of the meeting.