12/27/2007 12:00AM

Long-range forecast uncertain

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - The long winter meet at Santa Anita always begins with optimism. And as long as the weather stays dry, holiday spirits will remain high into the 2008 new year.

However, Santa Anita faces many unanswered questions Wednesday when the four-month, 85-day meet begins. It might be easier to find the winner of the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes - a wide-open field of 14 races seven furlongs - than resolving several key issues.

* A problematic synthetic racing surface forced closure of the main track for 2 1/2 weeks during renovation; it reopened Saturday, only four days before opening day. The new surface is fast, and apparently safe. But will it hold up in wet weather?

* A new Thursday-through-Monday race week will replace the traditional Wednesday-through-Sunday schedule. It is an effort by Santa Anita to stimulate business. Yet even with free general admission, will anyone show up on Mondays?

* A new jackpot-type wager, the $1 Super High Five, will be offered on the last race each day. The bet requires picking the first five finishers in order. When no one hits, the entire pool, minus takeout, carries over to the next day. So will the Super High Five be an acceptable replacement for the last-race superfecta, and how high will the carryovers grow?

Adding to the season of uncertainty is that Santa Anita will host the 2008 Breeders' Cup during the fall Oak Tree meet. It will be the first time a Breeders' Cup has been held on a synthetic surface, and recent drainage problems with the Cushion Track have caused much apprehension.

Santa Anita president Ron Charles recognizes the preseason scrutiny.

"There isn't any question the Breeders' Cup will be looking at our meet," he said. "It's important to the Breeders' Cup that when we come back in October, that the track we put them on is going to be safe and fair, and when it drains it can handle any type of weather."

The surface did not handle water during a wet December, when it failed to drain properly. Track superintendent Richard Tedesco said that the sand had an excessive percentage of silt and clay that prevented water from entering the drainage system. The track was dug up, "cleaner" sand was added, and early indications are positive.

Of course, sunny recent weather has helped. At the next sign of rain, Tedesco could seal the track - pack it down so the water slides off rather than draining through. It is an unusual maintenance procedure for a so-called all-weather track.

"Cushion Track is not really a track you are supposed to seal," Tedesco said.

But given the uncertainty on whether the track will ever take rain, he may have no other choice.

It all makes for an uncertain winter, and it's impossible for track executives such as Charles to commit to Cushion Track beyond closing day, April 20.

"With regards to what happens after our meet, it will strictly be dependent on how successful our meet goes, and how well our track handles any type of weather."

The Santa Anita winter meet is the West Coast proving grounds for 3-year-olds on the road toward the spring classics, and while the quality of the division is open to debate, there is no shortage of volume.

Early nominations for the Santa Anita Derby were up over last year, and the most exciting 3-year-old prospect for next spring - Hollywood Starlet winner Country Star - is scheduled for her 2008 debut Feb. 9 in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes. She will stay at Santa Anita for the Santa Anita Oaks on March 8, after which trainer Bobby Frankel will decide whether to aim for the Kentucky Oaks, or the Kentucky Derby.

The Derby is an ambitious goal, and the only thing Frankel will do now is keep open the option.

"Put it this way - I am nominating her," he said of the Derby.

Other Grade 1 highlights include the Santa Anita Handicap on March 1; the Santa Anita Derby on April 5; and the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 26.

Those stakes will provide fitting quality for the weekends, while fans will adjust to a new weekday schedule. One of the concerns for officials was how the new Thursday-through-Monday schedule would affect the size of pick six pools, particularly when the bet carries from the last day of the race week to the first day of the next week.

"It was the biggest concern we had, because we're not exactly sure how that's going to play," Charles said. "But we felt we had an opportunity to try something different."

He added that if free admission on non-holiday Mondays works, "we'd love to be able to try one more day free."

In a new wrinkle to the pick six this year, a lone winner who bought the winning ticket ontrack will also win a new Corvette. And the wagering menu will end daily with a wild bet that officials expect to build steam as the meet unfolds.

The $1 Super High Five will replace the last-race superfecta, but Charles expects a "soft start" to the new wager. Many wagering outlets will not offer the bet until software is updated, including most advance deposit wagering outlets, Las Vegas, and Illinois.

Management is meeting with jockeys Wednesday morning to re-emphasize the importance of riding out their mounts to the wire. This season, a fifth-place finish could be just as important to a Super High Five bettor as a winner is to someone who bets the pick six.