04/24/2007 11:00PM

New Del Mar track gets rave reviews


DEL MAR, Calif. - Get ready to break out the heavy-duty shades later this summer, and not just because of the way the sunshine sparkles on the crystal blue Pacific. More than a mile's worth of powder-gray silica sand-based Polytrack has replaced the dark brown Del Mar main track loam, and boy does that baby bounce the light.

Aesthetics aside, the new Del Mar surface got plenty of oohs and aahs from not only a cocktail party crowd wandering around on the sand late Tuesday afternoon, but also from a handful of trainers and riders who volunteered as guinea pigs for this week's brief unveiling.

As with all revolutions, the synthetic track era will require a new vocabulary. Adjectives used to describe the freshly laid Del Mar Polytrack included squishy, spongy, and fluffy (sounds like dwarfs who failed to make the final cut), but most of all the key word seemed to be "kind," as in friendly and benign.

Peter Miller, who is stabled primarily at the San Luis Rey Downs training center, galloped a few of his horses himself in the morning and then watched horses working over the surface during the early afternoon. There was, he observed, a difference.

"Moisture will be the key," Miller said. "The surface seemed much tighter in the morning when there was more moisture in the air. After the sun had been on it for awhile, it definitely fluffed up. You could see more kickback."

There's one of the old words - kickback - which in terms of traditional dirt tracks conjures images of lacerating sprays of rough-grained sand or clay-packed clods of loam, scratching eyeballs, clogging nostrils ,and pelting jockeys. Polytrack, when it does kick back, tends to dissolve in a passive poof of fine sand and carpet fibers before it can harm a fly.

In addition to Miller, trainers Doug O'Neill and Neil Drysdale sent horses for Monday and Tuesday test runs of the new surface. Both trainers operate out of Hollywood Park, where their horses train on the Polytrack competitor Cushion Track.

"The riders said it rode extremely well," reported Drysdale, who worked three horses in the afternoon. "Obviously, the course needs to settle in a little bit. But I am a believer in synthetic surfaces. I think it's going to make a huge difference in racing - not just for the safety of the horses, but for the public's perception."

Hall of Famer Drysdale, notoriously conservative, was an unlikely candidate to offer three horses for what amounted to a product trial, at speed and in full pads. The fact that he joined such younger lions as O'Neill and Miller in the experiment spoke loudly about his commitment to the new technology.

"Yes, it was a fairly aggressive move," Drysdale said. "I would never send a horse to a dirt track and work him right off the van. It wouldn't even occur to me to do that. But I was not concerned about bringing horses down to work on a synthetic track, even though they had never been on that track before. And the three horses I sent down there thoroughly enjoyed it."

Drysdale identified his three runners as "soldiers" coming up to races at Hollywood Park meet.

"The main thing," Drysdale added, "is to get the soldiers back so they can fight another day."

A final goodbye to some legends

If the deaths of significant people indeed come in threes, we can rest awhile.

The loss of Kurt Vonnegut and David Halberstam ripped a pair of towering pillars from the support structure of American letters. One plied his trade in novels, short tales, and essays of dark whimsy, while the other was the ultimate role model for brave, investigative journalism. For those who have never read either "Slaughterhouse Five" or "The Best and the Brightest," take hope. There is still time.

In between those two giants, a somewhat smaller tree fell in the forest of Southern California horse racing when handicapper, turf writer, pressbox steward and all-around gentleman Fermo Cambianica passed away last Saturday while in convalescent care. He was 79.

Fermo - he was one of those one-name celebrities - was comfortable in the role of the droll, all-knowing building superintendent in the cast of the local media sitcom, able to accommodate everyone's foibles by nurturing a few of his very own. Yes, it is true he once tried to dry his rain-soaked hat in a microwave - ah, what flames - and yes, he once was too busy with a broken copier and a pile of faxes to facilitate a request from the office of the vice president of the United States to congratulate Laffit Pincay on breaking Bill Shoemaker's record. But these things only added to his legend.

Fermo had been pretty much out of action for more than a month, fighting a recently diagnosed and horribly virulent form of cancer. But with the help of friends, like Ellis Davis of Equibase, he was able to attend the races at Santa Anita on the Wednesday before his death and enjoy the company of 60 or so friends in a winner's circle ceremony after a race named in his honor. It was the last good day at the track in a lifetime of good days at the track for a man who will be sorely missed.