02/19/2002 12:00AM

Horsemen concerned about track condition

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ALBANY, Calif. - Hall of Gold was pulling up from her win in the Richmond Handicap when jockey Chad Schvaneveldt heard a sickening pop.

Hall of Gold never made it to the winner's circle. She had fractured a sesamoid in her left front leg, the latest in a run of serious injuries to horses at Golden Gate Fields.

Although the injury to Hall of Gold, a 4-year-old filly, wasn't life threatening, it ended her racing career. It was the second sesamoid injury in two days for a stakes filly trained by Jeff Bonde, who lost the 3-year-old filly My Aim Is True in a training accident.

Through the first 69 days of racing at Golden Gate Fields, which opened Nov. 7, 28 horses were euthanized in northern California. Twenty-one of the fatalities resulted from racing or training on the track at Golden Gate; three horses died while training at the Bay Meadows and Pleasanton training sites, and four other horses died from other causes.

State veterinarian Dr. Joan Hurley acknowledged that the number of fatal injuries has been high, but that she did not see an alarming trend. The cause of the breakdowns has perplexed horsemen, veterinarians, and track officials. According to the records of Hurley, a high number of the injuries have occurred in the morning.

Trainers are quick to compliment track superintendent Bob Aguirre for his work keeping the track together in a difficult situation and for his communication with horsemen.

"That being said, something is wrong," trainer Greg Gilchrist said. "But I don't think it's for any lack of trying."

Both Dr. Hurley and Aguirre keep records of the horses vanned off the track, whether in the morning or afternoon, and neither sees an alarming increase over past numbers. But the numbers, they admit, do not tell the whole story because some horses may be able to make it back to their barns before an injury is detected.

Trainer Sergio Ledezma has a small stable of seven horses. One of his horses, He's a Shooter, suffered a fatal injury while training on Wednesday, Feb. 13.

"We all look for reasons," Ledezma said, "but it happens at Santa Anita, Louisiana, everywhere.

"I think the track's a little hard, but I think they've done a wonderful job for the weather we've had."

Only seven of Golden Gate Fields's 21 fatal injuries have occurred since Aguirre was finally able to add sand to the track on Jan. 11 following a record December rainfall.

Bonde, who has been around Golden Gate Fields for more than 30 years, said he believes the track surface is a little loose, which helps to create hyperextension injuries such as fractured sesamoids. Also, Bonde said he thinks "the soil's worn out."

Trainer Steve Specht lost two horses to broken sesamoids in the past two weeks, including the sharp Lil' Country, who he said was sound before his injury. Specht believes the problems may be the result of the sand that was added.

"I don't think they did a good job of mixing it," he said. "It's not the same consistency, and I think it throws horses off stride."

There were also some concerns that the sand was added to a track that was still wet, but Aguirre, who added one-eighth of an inch of sand, said the sand revived the track.

Problems may be showing up now after the track was sealed during most of the month of December, when there was 50 percent more rain than usual. Working and running on the hard surface may have created minor problems that have worsened during recent weeks.

"During the rainy weather, I believe a firmer track is better than a deeper track," Aguirre said, explaining why the track was sealed for so long. "If you don't overprotect it, you lose it."

Aguirre said that December's shorter days and lack of wind added to the track's inability to dry out. Longer days, warmer weather and brisker winds in February can help the track dry out quicker.

"We went six weeks with never a drying day," Aguirre said. "It's a tough time of the year to get that much rain. We usually get heavier rain at this time of the year."

The number of horses working on the track each day also adds to Aguirre's problems.

"We're unfortunate here because we don't have a training track," he said. "This place isn't large enough to handle the number of horses we handle."

Aguirre has taken core samples, digging even deeper than normal into the main track to analyze the soil to try to correct the problem.

"I hate to see breakdowns," Aguirre said. "There's obviously something, and we're working on it."