02/14/2008 12:00AM

Mid-card track work made a bias vanish

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The refurbished main track at Santa Anita - a mixture of Pro-Ride and Cushion Track - was really swell for a few days.

Saturday through Monday, the new surface played slower than the wickedly fast Cushion Track tarmac. It was like real racing. Final times were normal, closers rallied, cheap speed died, and outside lanes were best. The surface was kind.

Horsemen and horseplayers anticipated similar conditions when the new racing week began Wednesday.

"I was expecting the track I ran on the previous two days," trainer Bobby Frankel said.

But the track changed. It was nothing like the weekend racetrack. The supposedly "maintenance-free" surface turned into another speed-favoring brickyard on Wednesday. Two races into the card, Frankel scratched program favorite Les Grands Trois from the race-8 feature.

"Why take a chance?" he said.

Why indeed? What no one realized is that the surface would change again halfway through the program. Jockeys described the track as "hard," an opinion supported by final times. Cry Me No River won race 1, a $12,500 claimer for 4-year-olds, in 1:08.31, more than second faster than normal.

The next two sprints, races 3 and 4, also were alarmingly fast, by more than one second. Race 3, for maiden fillies and mares at 5 1/2 furlongs, went in 1:02.08. The next race, a $16,000 claimer, produced one of the meet's fastest times for six furlongs - 1:07.61.

The front-running race 4 win by Trail Mix also was the first leg of the pick six, which attracted $181,211 into the pool. Many tickets were structured with track bias in mind. Bettors might not have realized that the bias would be only temporary.

Because of the speed and hardness of the track, Santa Anita had two choices - cancel the remainder of the card, or renovate the track. Pick-six bettors were locked in - the first leg was official. If the track bias changed, it was too bad for handicappers.

"You are concerned about the gamblers, and I am sympathetic," trainer Richard Mandella said. "But when it comes to the welfare of the horses, and the good of racing, just because people are betting on horses . . . cannot drive this game. It has to be driven by the sport."

The point is not argued.

Santa Anita power-harrowed the track before race 6, the next main-track event. Sure enough, the surface changed. It slowed down and returned to normal. Front-runners no longer held the advantage. It became kind to closers, and pick-six bettors who had banked on the speed bias continuing were left in a lurch.

For the last three main-track races Wednesday, the track resembled the Saturday-Sunday-Monday surface. Meanwhile, two tickets isolated all six winners in the pick six on Wednesday, and the bet returned $50,258.40.

Horse owner Bob Bone understands the plight of those wagering on sequential bets. "It's unfortunate, but the safety of the horses has to come first. These are unusual circumstances that make it tough for the gambler. I don't think [Santa Anita] had any idea that was going to happen."

The midday renovation project underscores two key handicapping considerations. First, the unpredictable nature of synthetic racetracks requires tempering enthusiasm for horizontal wagers that require bettors to look beyond the next race. Perhaps one race at a time will have to suffice.

Second, the changing speed of the Santa Anita main track often requires that handicappers split the variant to create accurate speed figures. The track was fast Wednesday for races 1-4. It slowed for races 6-9.

As for the fiasco on Wednesday, hopes are the episode will not be repeated. A heavy rain Thursday morning went straight through the new main track, and for the first time this winter, water was pouring out of drainage pipes leading away from the track.

"Everybody that has a synthetic track has said a good rain is the best thing for it," Mandella said. "And we learned [Wednesday] that the 'no-maintenance' is not the answer. As soon as the track was tilled, it came right back together."

Frankel has Oaks backup

Frankel said Thursday that Hollywood Starlet winner Country Star is not likely to run this winter at Santa Anita, which leaves the Santa Anita Oaks ripe for a second-tier 3-year-old filly to win. The thing is, Frankel may already have the winner in his stable.

Lovely Isle was hounded through a wicked pace Feb. 9 in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes, racing a half-mile in 46.06 seconds and three-quarters in 1:10.33 before weakening late and finishing second by a length to Golden Doc A. It was the first start around two turns for Lovely Isle, whose training into the one-mile Las Virgenes consisted of only two half-mile works. Lovely Isle might be long gone next time out.

Reflect Times using blinkers

Does trainer John Shirreffs have another Derby sleeper? Reflect Times finished third in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 2, after which jockey Mike Smith suggested Shirreffs add blinkers to the lazy colt.

"We use them in the morning to breeze him because he just doesn't really care," Shirreffs said.

Reflect Times runs March 1 in the Sham, and if he can stay closer to the pace, the colt might spring another Shirreffs upset. He won the 2007 Santa Anita Derby with Tiago ($60.60) and the 2005 Kentucky Derby with Giacomo ($102.60).

* Slam Slew will add a tongue-tie Saturday in race 4, and you wouldn't want to count him out. He scored one of the most impressive maiden wins by a 2-year-old last summer, missed the Del Mar meet, and bombed when he displaced and could not get his air in his recent comeback. He is a better colt than the race shows, and he should be tough to beat on Saturday.