04/20/2009 12:00AM

Hollywood opener brings questions

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NGLEWOOD, Calif. - Brewing uncertainty accompanies the start of the three-month spring-summer race meet Wednesday at Hollywood Park, where unanswered questions seem to outnumber opening-day runners.

Only 53 horses entered the eight-race program, lighter than the track's racing secretary, Martin Panza, would have preferred. But it was not a surprise. Panza will face an uphill climb for much of the 65-day season, which runs through July 19.

"Some days we will struggle, I'm not going to lie about that," Panza said. "We want full fields, too, and that's not always possible. The way the economy is, there are fewer horses available, so we'll do the best we can with what we have to fill races."

Yet despite a declining inventory and ambiguity regarding the Hollywood's future, many are looking forward to the start of a new season in Inglewood. And who knows? Every spring-summer meet at Hollywood could be the last.

"If it's our last meet here, and it probably is, then what the heck, let's have a good meet," said John Sadler, leading trainer this winter at Santa Anita. "If this is going to be our last go-round here, let's at least have a good go-round. Let's show them what we have here."

Long-range plans call for the Hollywood property to be developed by its owner, Bay Meadows Land Co. Hollywood has not committed to racing in 2010. When the track eventually does close, it will be unfortunate for horseplayers who appreciate handicapping principles that apply to both dirt and synthetic.

The racing surface at Hollywood is perceived as the most consistent of the Southern California synthetics - Polytrack at Del Mar, Pro-Ride at Santa Anita, Cushion Track at Hollywood. Though racing secretary Panza admits to prejudice, his opinion is shared by many handicappers.

"Maybe I'm biased, but of the three synthetic tracks, I think this plays the fairest to the wagering public," Panza said. "The gamblers I talk to say it's the most consistent. I think it stays it a little more formful."

Cushion Track plays like dirt. Speed can carry, without being considered biased. Furthermore, the fractions in main-track races at Hollywood are usually quicker than the slow-paced races on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride that handicappers find difficult to interpret.

The Pro-Ride-to-Cushion Track analysis will be a key handicapping challenge early in the meet, and no one is looking forward to a surface change more than the connections of unbeaten 4-year-old Rail Trip. He won all three of his races at Santa Anita, and is 5 for 5 overall, yet trainer Ron Ellis believes it is possible Rail Trip prefers the Hollywood surface.

"It's not possible, it's definite," Ellis said. "The first time I ran him at Santa Anita, Jose [Valdivia] said, you're not going to believe this, but this horse doesn't like this track. So I was worried about him all meet, struggling with the track and having to run too hard."

The good news for Ellis and owners Mace and Samantha Siegel is that Rail Trip had an easy time, winning three as the odds-on favorite to extend his win streak to five. This summer at Hollywood, the test is to find out how good Rail Trip really is.

Ellis is aiming Rail Trip for an ambitious campaign ending with the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup July 11. First, he runs in a pair of Grade 2's - the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap May 9, and Californian on June 13.

"My plan is to run in all three," Ellis said.

Meanwhile, plans are undetermined for the top horse stabled at Hollywood: Zenyatta. She is training regularly, but trainer John Shirreffs has not committed her to a comeback race. Two factors complicate the situation - the elimination of one graded stakes for fillies and mares, and the presence of Shirreffs-trained Grade 1 winner Life Is Sweet.

"It would have been so much easier with the Hawthorne," Shirreffs said, referring to the filly-mare stakes in early May that was scrapped as part of the track's stakes reduction. Life Is Sweet will run May 23 in the Grade 2 Milady, but Shirreffs does not want Life Is Sweet and Zenyatta in the same race. The only other main-track filly-mare route is the Grade 1 Vanity June 27.

The Grade 1 schedule includes the Shoemaker Mile on May 25 in which Whatsthescript, who was third in the Breeders' Cup Mile, will make his 2009 debut. The Gamely for grass fillies and mares is May 30; the Charles Whittingham Memorial at 1 1/4 miles on turf is June 6; the American Oaks for 3-year-old turf fillies and the Triple Bend for main-track sprinters are July 5.

Spring-summer at Hollywood always includes a fresh crop of 2-year-olds, and trainers Mike Harrington and Walther Solis will be represented in most early-season juvenile races. Their battle starts early, in the first race of the meet. Harrington entered two Swiss Yodeler colts. Solis also entered two in the race.

"We look forward to this time of year," Solis said. "I have a nice bunch of babies, and I think I'll have a strong meet."

Solis has more than 25 juveniles, and he expects most will run this meet. He entered firster Grace Upon Grace and Anita Brewski in race 1.

Harrington, however, holds the stronger hand. First-time starters Awesome Swiss and Really Uptown have both worked quickly and should come out firing.

* In the $70,000 Harry Henson, race 7 on Wednesday, Backbackbackgone is expected to be favored over Position A in the six-furlong turf sprint for 3-year-olds.