11/05/2007 1:00AM

New barns should help to fill race cards

EmailALBANY, Calif. - Northern California's most anticipated race meeting in years opens Wednesday at Golden Gate Fields. This will be the first meeting there to be run on a synthetic surface, which has won raves from trainers who have seen their horses work on it for the past month. The meeting ends Dec. 22.

Evidence of the popularity of the Tapeta brand synthetic surface is seen in the number of entries for the first three cards of the meet, all comprising eight races: 72 on Wednesday, 63 Thursday, and 69 Friday. That's an average of 8.5 per race, compared with the average field size this year on the Northern California circuit of 6.9.

Golden Gate's racing secretary, Sean Greely, said the barn area will be filled to capacity, 1,325 horses, when a batch of horses from Canada ships in shortly. Greely said the new surface attracted new barns, including those of Barbara Heads, Troy Taylor, Robert Gilker, and Terry Clyde. Golden Gate is working with the city of Berkeley, where the backstretch is located, to add another 250 stalls.

Greely also is confident that the surface will help horses stay healthy, which helps maintain field size.

Robert Hartman, the track's general manager, expects the bigger fields to translate into more betting.

"Honestly, our product here has been terrible," he said. "Not quality - we've had some great horses from here - but the quantity aspect has been brutal. Bettors look elsewhere when we have short fields."

The Tapeta surface, like the Cushion Track at Santa Anita and Hollywood and the Polytrack at Del Mar, requires little maintenance and never gets sloppy or muddy. That makes planning horses' training schedules much easier than on the old conventional surface, said trainer Howard Belvoir, who spent the summer at Emerald Downs.

"As trainers, we'll have to be careful," he said. "They seem to train so well and seem to be doing it easy. Maybe we'll work them too hard. You can put a schedule on your calendar and stick to it. In the past, it used to be you had to see what kind of track came up each day, especially in the rain, before you'd decide to work them."

Golden Gate has modernized its tote board, making it easier to read, with LED display of all numbers. The track has also hired a new executive chef, Miguel Porras, from the Claremont Hotel.

The Golden Gate Fields/Daily Racing Form Handicapping Challenge will be conducted Nov. 10-11 (qualifying round) and Dec. 15 (finals), with the winner earning a berth in the DRF/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship in January.