04/19/2011 4:02PM

Hollywood opens with reasons to be optimistic

Benoit & Associates
Sinai (above) will face Gig Harbor, Diamond Geezah, and Boxeur Des Rues in the Harry Henson.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – While the drive to Hollywood Park from Santa Anita is only 35 miles, the differences between the Los Angeles-area racetracks are greater than a simple crosstown jaunt.

After a long winter at Santa Anita, spring begins Thursday at Hollywood with reasons for optimism including a purse increase in claiming and starter-allowance levels, and a reduced takeout (14 percent) pick five wager. For handicappers, the initial adjustment is obvious.

“Different surface,” trainer John Sadler said, referring to the Cushion Track at Hollywood. “Last year, people regarded this as the best synthetic of the three.”

Make that two. A type of dirt was installed at Santa Anita, leaving Del Mar and Hollywood with the circuit’s only two synthetic surfaces. This spring, for the first time since 2007, a handicapping challenge is the switch from Santa Anita dirt to Hollywood synthetic.

“The advantage for us is we have the best racing surface in California,” Hollywood’s racing secretary, Martin Panza, said. “It’s a benefit to guys that stable here. I think they kept their horses much sounder over the winter.”

Golden Gate shippers, although already accustomed to synthetic, also will be tested. “I’m sure glad we got down here and got a breeze over the track,” trainer Dean Pederson said. “My horse was really blowing [Sunday].” He was referring to Vadertore, who runs in the Tiznow Stakes on Saturday and will the first starter of the meet for Pederson, formerly based in the North.

Pederson is joined at Hollywood by fellow Northern California trainer Jeff Bonde, whose 32 stalls will mark his first full-scale campaign at the spring meet. An infusion from Golden Gate and Arizona, along with the spring 2-year-old program, will help officials fill the four-day week, from Thursday through Sunday.

“We’ve got about 2,300 to 2,400 active horses,” Panza said. “That means they worked once, or raced once, in the last month. It’s not necessarily 2,400 to work from. It just means they have done something. We’re probably working more from 1,700 to 1,800.”

Hollywood hopes increased purses at lower levels stimulate interest. A $10,000 claiming race at Hollywood offers a $20,000 purse; at Santa Anita it was $18,000. A maiden-40 starter allowance purse at Hollywood is $35,000, at Santa Anita it was $28,000.

“You can play the claiming game now, and economically it makes sense,” Panza said. “If you claim one, and he wins next time out, you’re clean.” Daily overnight purses will exceed $290,000.

As for stakes, the relevance of spring-summer at Hollywood carries ramifications toward the Breeders’ Cup, even though the year-end races are still months away.

Three graded races will carry “Win-and-You’re-In” designation guaranteeing a spot in a Breeders’ Cup race – the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup (BC Classic) on July 9, Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile (BC Mile) on July 2, and the Grade 2 A Gleam (Filly and Mare Sprint) on July 16. The Shoemaker Mile, previously scheduled in May, was flip-flopped with the Grade 2 American at a mile on turf. The American will be run May 28.

Spring at Hollywood also is when precocious 2-year-olds emerge. The purse for 2-year-old special-weight maidens is $50,000, and early-season competition is easier in spring than summer.

“You know when you get to Del Mar, with the Baffert, Sadler and Hollendorfer 2-year-olds, it gets much tougher,” Panza said. “Obviously, early on, it’s a little easier to win those types of races here.”

Trainers Walther Solis and Mike Harrington will be well represented in 2-year-old races at Hollywood. In the meet’s first juvenile race Thursday at 4 1/2 furlongs, Solis-trained Molly’s All Heart meets Harrington-trained Remember to Yodel in race 3.

The race-7 feature Thursday is the $70,000 Harry Henson for 3-year-olds at six furlongs on turf. Gig Harbor, a City Zip colt who won both starts at Golden Gate in impressive style for trainer Steve Specht, might be the horse to beat. He faces Diamond Geezah, Boxeur Des Rues and Sinai.

The main attraction Thursday is the debut of a new bet with a lowest takeout rate in California. Hollywood will introduce a 50-cent pick five on the first five races daily. The bet has a takeout rate of 14 percent, and a carryover provision.

Rules for the pick five are similar to the pick six – 70 percent of the net pool is paid to tickets with five winners, and 30 percent goes to consolation tickets with four. If no ticket selects five winners, 70 percent of the pool carries over to the next day.

The opening-day pick five begins with a potential single in the first race of the meet, race 1. Mike Mitchell-trained Katelyn N’ Jenna stretches out for the first time in a 1 1/16-mile route for $30,000 maiden-claiming fillies and mares.

In addition to the pick five, the track will offer 50-cent pick four wagers daily on races 2-5, and the last four daily. On eight-race cards such as opening day, race 5 will be the most important race of the day. It will be the last leg of the pick five, last leg of the early pick four, and first leg of the late pick four.

Racing will be on a Thursday-through-Sunday schedule, with two five-day weeks due to holiday cards on Mondays – Memorial Day on May 30, and the Fourth of July.

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