07/13/2006 12:00AM

Jury still out on new course

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Hollywood Park wraps up its summer business on Sunday with the running of the Sunset Handicap, and signs are good that there will be at least another Hollywood Park meet or two, based primarily on the load of artificial material on order that is intended to replace the main track's traditional dirt surface in time for the autumn season.

This time last year, as the track was in ownership transition from Churchill Downs Inc. to Bay Meadows Land Co., plans were well underway to rip out the existing turf course and replace it with a new drainage system and a gleaming green carpet of sod that went by the name of SeaDwarf¬ Seashore Paspalum.

For all the growing it did, it might as well have been called April Fool's Fescue. After two months of nursing the new sod along, track management was forced to swallow a bitter pill and cancel all grass racing for the 2005 autumn meet. The unrooted paspalum was rolled up and dumped in the parking lot, and then replaced by yet another course, this time a Bermuda strain marketed by Hall of Fame golfer Greg Norman, known as GN-2.

Reviews for the replacement course were mixed, with hard ground the main complaint, and there is obvious wear and tear as the horses for the Sunset prepare to bid farewell for now. Some grass-oriented trainers have given the current course the benefit of the doubt, whereas others, such as Bobby Frankel, have backed off noticeably. Last year, the Frankel stable started 44 horses on the grass; this season, the number going into the final weekend is 33. He had nothing even nominated to the Sunset, a race he won with Roi Normand in 1988 and River Bay in 1998.

Eduardo Inda will be trying to win the Sunset with the long-winded T.H. Approval, whose two most recent victories have come in the 2005 and 2006 runnings of the 14-furlong San Juan Capistrano Handicap at Santa Anita.

At 1 1/2 miles, the Sunset is just tickling the outer edges of T.H. Approval's stamina. He appeared most recently in the Whittingham Memorial, at 1 1/4 miles, and finished seventh of nine under Martin Pedroza in a race won by Lava Man. Though disappointed, Inda was not discouraged, and he feels there will be factors in T.H. Approval's favor come Sunday's Sunset, beyond the obvious absence of Lava Man from the field.

"He was a little closer to the pace last time than he likes to be," said Inda, who trains only four horses these days at his Santa Anita base. "But maybe that's just the way the race came up. Anyway, he still ran a pretty good race. He wasn't beaten that much by Lava Man."

Inda was reflecting the current trend that sets Lava Man as the West Coast standard, for either grass or dirt. To be precise, T.H. Approval came home 5 3/4 lengths behind Lava Man, who was two lengths clear of runner-up Red Fort.

Still, Inda harbors lingering doubts that T.H. Approval truly strides out with his Santa Anita fervor when he hits the Hollywood ground. His record includes three wins over the course and a dead heat for second in the 2005 Sunset, any of which might be good enough to win the prize this time around.

"But that was the old course," Inda said. "I'm not 100 percent sure he really likes the new course. Martin was riding him for the first time in the Whittingham, so there was no way I could ask him if he felt any different than he did at Santa Anita."

Alex Solis, who was occupied aboard Grey Swallow at Belmont Park on the day of the Whittingham, will be back in his familiar place aboard T.H. Approval in the Sunset, a race that has been won by the likes of Exceller, Typecast, Fort Marcy, and Cougar, as well as John Henry, at age 9, in 1984.

"He could do anything," said Inda, who was trainer Ron McAnally's assistant during the reign of John Henry. "With a horse like him, all you need is one horse in the barn."

If nothing else, the Hollywood turf course deserves another chance when racing returns to Hollywood this fall. By then it will have matured and further benefited from its first crack at some peak bermuda grass growing months to create a better cushion.

On the other hand, the new artificial main track material manufactured by the British firm Equestrian Surfaces - called Cushion Track - should get no slack at all. It must hit the ground running, perform as advertised, and cause not the slightest whisper of a complaint. There is too much at stakes to expect otherwise.

Eual Wyatt, Hollywood's general manager, anticipates an installation schedule that will have Hollywood's main track open for training right after Labor Day.

"The cushion and base will be removed and a new drainage system installed," Wyatt said. "Then the surface will be put down and compacted, beginning in mid-August. With construction projects, there is always the possibility of things happening that could cause delays. But since the track is lighted, we have the ability to add a second shift to get it all done."