09/05/2007 12:00AM

Lava Man christens Cushion Track


The synthetic surface era in Southern California is now complete. Santa Anita's Cushion Track surface has been installed, and was open for its first two days of training on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings.

In what turned out to literally be a made-for-TV event, Santa Anita was able to get both Lava Man and a Los Angeles-area television news crew out to the track at 4:45 a.m. on Tuesday as Lava Man, winner of the last two Santa Anita Handicaps to be run on conventional dirt, became the first horse to step foot on Santa Anita's new Cushion Track.

Cushion Track is a blend of silica sand mixed with synthetic fibers, elastic fiber, and shredded rubber, all coated in wax.

Santa Anita officials have said that installing Cushion Track cost $10omillion. The project began July 5. The new surface will be used for racing with the beginning of the 39th annual Oak Tree meeting Sept. 26. Lava Man is scheduled to race at Oak Tree in the Grade 1 Goodwood Stakes on Sept. 29.

Cushion Track is also the surface at Hollywood Park. Del Mar put in Polytrack, and Golden Gate is in the process of installing a Tapeta surface. The surfaces are being installed in response to a mandate by the state racing board that the tracks put in synthetic surfaces by the end of this year.

Lava Man jogged twice around Santa Anita's track Tuesday morning with his regular exercise rider, Tony Romero.

"He seemed real comfortable on it," said his trainer, Doug O'Neill. "Lava Man just skipped over it.

"This is truly an historic development for Santa Anita and it's going to be great for the game. It's all about the safety of the horses, and credit to the Santa Anita people for putting the safety of the horses first."

Santa Anita's president, Ron Charles, said: "There's no question this is a safer surface. I think it's a more consistent surface and hopefully it's a fairer surface. And I think it's something you're going to see more and more racetracks go to, simply on the basis that we need to keep our horses safer and sounder."

In addition to horses from O'Neill, other trainers who sent out horses to test Santa Anita's Cushion Track on Tuesday included Vladimir Cerin and Paddy Gallagher. Cerin won last month's Pacific Classic at Del Mar with Student Council, and has been one of the biggest proponents of California's switch to synthetic surfaces.

The main track will open for training at 4:45 each morning, and there will be one renovation break, at 7:15.