11/04/2002 12:00AM

Horsemen give thumbs up to revitalized track surface

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ALBANY, Calif. - Opening day at the racetrack doesn't have the pizzazz it used to now that racing is year-round, but Wednesday's opening at Golden Gate Fields offered the local racing community the proverbial breath of fresh air.

Monday was one of the busiest days of the year for local trainers who moved their horses from Bay Meadows to Golden Gate Fields, but good things awaited them at the new location.

Most importantly, the main track - which caused many problems last year because of unusually heavy rains early in the meeting - is in excellent shape.

New track superintendent Juan Meza has already completed most of the winterizing of the track, adding sand four different times to allow it to work into the surface gradually.

"The track has been great," said Jim Ghidella, northern California director for the Thoroughbred Owners of California. "I heard a few comments when they were adding sand that the track was loose, but when you watch horses work now, you barely hear a sound."

Trainer Greg Gilchrist, who is based year-round at Golden Gate Fields, said the track is okay.

"They've done a good job, although adversity always seems to come when it starts raining," he said.

Bill Patterson, Chuck Jenda's assistant, said, "They did it the right way. They've already added sand. You have to winterize the track."

The track had not yet been winterized when freak, heavy rainstorms hit early last year. Sand was added belatedly and quickly, and it took a long time for the track to recover because it never completely dried out.

Richard Lewis, coordinator of racing for parent company Magna, said Meza and his crew have already put as much sand into the track as was used last year.

"We put it on three or four times so there was a drastic changing of the track," he said.

Lewis said another complaint from horsemen last year was the track would frequently have to be closed for workouts with little notice. He said that he began a series of informal luncheon meetings with trainers at Bay Meadows and that would continue at Golden Gate Fields. Determining a plan for workouts on rainy days is high on the agenda.

Racing secretary Greg Brent says he is "upbeat" heading into the new meeting.

The track condition is only one factor: With a larger barn area at Golden Gate Fields and more horses on the grounds, it is easier to fill races.

The new purse structure that went into effect at Bay Meadows and the increased purses of lower-level races has encouraged several trainers who compete primarily on the fair circuit or at Los Alamitos to run at Golden Gate. In addition, several more trainers from the Northwest have said they will send some horses with the settlement of the workers' compensation issue.

In addition, a virus that struck many younger horses in September appears to have run its course, and those horses are about ready to run.