04/18/2010 11:00PM

New Hollywood meet offers incentives

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Spring is in the air at Hollywood Park. But are there enough horses on the ground?

Hollywood opens Wednesday for a three-month meet on the main track handicappers consider the most consistent and fair synthetic surface in Southern California. Hollywood also marks the launch point for a fresh crop of 2-year-olds ready to begin their careers.

Along with a possible June 13 appearance by Zenyatta in the Vanity Handicap, the May 8 return of Hollywood Gold Cup winner Rail Trip, and a purse boost for claiming horses, there is plenty to anticipate during the spring-summer meet that lasts through July 18.

The 2010 season begins, however, under the cloud of a horse shortage. Hollywood's racing secretary, Martin Panza, estimates the local inventory is down 1,000 horses - from 3,800 a year ago to 2,800 now.

"There are shortages everywhere - it's an epidemic," he said.

The drop might be softened by a corresponding reduction in dates. But after trimming 10 Wednesdays and running 55 days during its 2009 meet, Hollywood plans to run 60 days this spring.

"We'll do the best we can to fill," Panza said, while cognizant of field size. "I really don't want to put [six-horse fields] out there every day."

Hollywood will be dark six Thursdays, when it will be open for simulcasting (April 22 and 29, June 3, and July 1, 8, and 15). Otherwise the schedule is relatively normal, with a beneficial twist for low-level claiming horses.

Purses for $8,000 to $20,000 claimers will be boosted from California Marketing Committee funds. For example, a $12,500 claimer that is race 2 opening day has a $20,000 purse. The same race at Santa Anita had a $15,000 purse.

"We're at the start of a rebuilding process, or least moving forward trying to keep the horses that we have, here," Panza said. "Since Del Mar closed in September, purses for claiming horses have [been bad]. This is a step in the right direction."

Panza is hopeful the higher purses entice Northern California-based stables to ship to Hollywood. Meanwhile, Arizona trainers Molly Pearson and Bill Bainum are settling in with a combined total of 50 horses.

While the revised structure may help retain or attract claimers, the stakes program took a big hit. The Grade 1 American Oaks on July 3 was reduced from $700,000 to $250,000, and the Hollywood Gold Cup on July 10 was reduced from $700,000 to $500,000. Three other Grade 1's, including the Vanity, were reduced from $300,000 to $250,000.

John Shirreffs did not confirm Zenyatta for the Vanity, but he and owners Jerry and Ann Moss may be leaning that way.

"We'll see what the weights are for the Vanity and go from there," Shirreffs said. "This is a place we like to run - we have to play at home some of the time."

Zenyatta, who has been based at Hollywood throughout her career, looks magnificent physically. When she returned to training last week after winning the Apple Blossom on April 9 at Oaklawn, the 6-year-old was dappled and full of energy. Zenyatta would be seeking her 17th consecutive victory in the Vanity, a race she won the last two years. A Zenyatta bobble-head giveaway is scheduled for Vanity day, June 13.

Rail Trip has not raced since finishing third in the Pacific Classic on Sept. 6, but he enters the meet as the early favorite to repeat in the Gold Cup.

"He had run quite a few times, and was tired horse [last year]," trainer Ron Ellis said. "Our plan this year was to have him fresh for the second half of the year."

Rail Trip, owned by Mace and Samantha Siegel, has won 6 of 9, and after a 1:13.60 gate work April 14, Ellis said he is "right on target" for the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy on May 8.

As for the 2-year-olds, the program begins immediately. The first race of the meet Wednesday is a 4 1/2-furlong maiden race with top contenders trained by Walther Solis and Mike Harrington.

Solis has two dozen 2-year-olds he plans to run this meet, including Belleofthebridle, a filly facing colts Wednesday.

"She's ready, she's really ready," Solis assured. "If you're going to beat the boys, now is the time." Solis is top-heavy with fillies.

Harrington has 22 juveniles including 16 by Swiss Yodeler. He entered two Wednesday - Norman Conqueror and Edgewick Road. "They're pretty equal," Harrington said.

In the $60,000 Harry Henson Stakes, race 7, Face and an Ace will try to win his third straight in the six-furlong turf sprint for 3-year-olds. His main rivals include comebacker Smiling Tiger and Big Man Has a Sign.