12/24/2006 12:00AM

Heat, cold, rain. So what's the right surface?

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Hollywood Park already has put in Cushion Track. Del Mar will install Polytrack, and Golden Gate Fields will put in Tapeta. Synthetic surfaces are unspooling like carpet across California, the result of a mandate by the state's racing board to have synthetic surfaces installed at California's five major Thoroughbred tracks by the end of 2007.

Now, all eyes are turning to Santa Anita. The state's flagship track opens Tuesday and is scheduled to conduct its last meet on a conventional dirt surface. Next summer, Santa Anita is scheduled to install a synthetic surface. And while synthetic surfaces have largely met with glowing reviews, there has not been unanimity over which one is best.

Santa Anita's surface will have to handle the extremes of wet, chilly winter weather when morning temperatures often dip below freezing, along with the blazingly hot days that oftentimes arrive for the fall Oak Tree meeting. Ron Charles, the track's president and chief executive officer, is among those entrusted with the critical decision over which product Santa Anita will pick, and he said it is not an easy choice.

"We're continuing to look at all surfaces," Charles said. "We recently sent a representative to Dubai to look at three types of surfaces that are being used there, see how they're standing up to the heat, and which one might be best for Santa Anita.

"Our biggest problem is that we're the track in Southern California that gets the most amount of rain, and has the most consecutive days over 100 degrees," he said. "That's a challenge."

According to Charles, four surfaces are still in the running - Cushion Track, Polytrack, Tapeta, and Pro-Ride, which is made in Australia. Magna Entertainment, which owns Santa Anita, already cast its lot with Tapeta for Golden Gate. Anyone looking for that decision as an inkling of where Santa Anita is headed might be reading too much into it, Charles said.

"It's such a work in progress," he said. "We need to look at every one. What might be right for Magna at Golden Gate might not be what we do at Santa Anita.

"We've watched Cushion Track at Hollywood, and Polytrack at Turfway, Keeneland, and Woodbine," he said. "We're just trying to see what works best and make the right choice. We're going to keep asking questions until we make a decision."

The time to make that decision is nearing.

"We'll need to know by sometime in February," Charles said. "We've got a meeting amongst Magna personnel scheduled for Florida at the end of January, and this is certainly an issue that will come up then."

The Santa Anita meeting that begins Tuesday runs through April 22. Santa Anita would then remain open for training through July 16, while Hollywood Park conducts its spring-summer meeting. But when Del Mar opens on July 18, Santa Anita's main track will close, and Hollywood Park will be the lone off-site racetrack open for training in the Los Angeles area. Last year, when Santa Anita was the off-site facility during Del Mar, Hollywood Park put in Cushion Track. Charles said Santa Anita will be under the same timetable next summer in order to have the new surface ready for the start of the Oak Tree meeting Sept. 26.

"As soon as the horses ship to Hollywood we would begin excavation and work on the foundation," Charles said.