10/30/2006 1:00AM

New surface, and a new outlook


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The new racing surface at Hollywood Park may be artificial, but the upbeat mood at the track is entirely genuine.

Hollywood reopens Wednesday with two novelties - a synthetic racetrack widely praised by horsemen, and an unusually high feeling of anticipation.

"What a difference a year makes," racing secretary Martin Panza said. "There is an optimistic attitude."

It is news, because the fall meet usually is the low point on the Southern California calendar. Last fall was a disaster, when an unsatisfactory turf course caused grass racing to be scrapped entirely. Hollywood has since replaced its turf course, and Wednesday ushers in a new era with Cushion Track, an artificial surface that replaced the dirt track.

The cost of the project was $8 million, a bargain if it proves to be the salvation of Hollywood and California racing. Hollywood already is reaping benefits by attracting out-of-state trainers not normally stabled in California, including Todd Pletcher (40 horses), Richard Dutrow (20), Lisa Lewis (16), Wally Dollase (8), and Christophe Clement (6).

A full-capacity stable will give Panza 1,800 horses on the grounds to fill races, in addition to those based at Santa Anita and Fairplex Park.

"[Hollywood] can be a ghost town," Panza said. "There are more trainers here. This is not going to be a training center. People are here to race."

The 36-day meet runs though Dec. 18 and includes three Grade 1's on grass during the Nov. 24-26 Autumn Turf Festival. The biggest dirt races are Grade 1's for 2-year-olds - the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 16, and Hollywood Starlet for fillies on Dec. 17.

By then, handicappers should have a handle on the bias nuances of the Cushion Track.

"I think it's anyone's guess if it will favor speed, or come-from-behind, or play fair," trainer Ron Ellis said. "I would guess it would be fair, but ship-ins might have a problem."

The Hollywood Cushion Track opened Sept. 13 and produced workout times slower than typical in Southern California. But over the past two weeks, times have sped up by about a second - either the track has tightened, or horses training on it are becoming fitter and more accustomed to the surface, and therefore able to work faster.

Cushion Track will require handicappers to reconsider the value of early speed, particularly on the heels of the six-week Oak Tree meet run at speed-friendly Santa Anita.

"They're not going to go 21 and change here and finish," trainer Cliff Sise said. If that's true, Sise-trained speedball Visual Tree is a bet-against Wednesday in race 4, a maiden sprint. Sise also entered first-time starter Larry's Girl, who he said "worked awesome" in her only work on the Cushion Track.

The perception is that Cushion Track runners who have trained regularly on the surface will have an edge on horses shipping from Santa Anita. But the notion that front-runners will be compromised, as they were on the synthetic surface at Keeneland, might not be the case.

That is because Hollywood has been open nearly two months and horses are familiar with the surface. Secondly, some trainers believe horses are able to get better hind traction on Cushion Track than they were able to at Keeneland.

A key test for Cushion Track speed is Wednesday in race 7, an optional $80,000 claimer at 6 1/2 furlongs in which the favorites, Bushwacker and Captain Squire, have similar styles. The speed of the speed is the Bill Currin-trained Bushwacker.

"He'll give you an idea [how the track plays], because we know what he's capable of," Currin said. "There is no holding back, he just cuts and goes. And he is as good as he can be."

Bushwacker has three bullet works on Cushion Track for his first start in two months.

At Santa Anita, the expected time for race 7 would be about 1:15.50. Wednesday's race should be closer to 1:17.

The richest race Wednesday is race 3. In the $60,000 Bien Bien Stakes, for 3-year-olds at one mile on turf, Porto Santo is the likely favorite over Zann. The Bien Bien is a prep for the Hollywood Derby, and Porto Santo makes his first start since a fourth-place finish in the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby on Sept. 4.

"I walked him for two weeks, and he grew up," trainer Julio Canani said.

He only hopes Porto Santo's heart size also increased, because the colt repeatedly has fallen short of expectations. Porto Santo was the beaten favorite in all three of his starts at Del Mar, in the Oceanside Stakes, Grade 2 La Jolla Handicap, and Grade 2 Del Mar Derby.

To win the Bien Bien, Porto Santo must hold off Zann, trained by Mike Machowsky. Zann dusted a second-level allowance field three weeks ago, and is using the Bien Bien as a prep. The question for Zann is whether the Bien Bien is a trap race, coming just 21 days after his smashing return from a five-month layoff.

"I don't think he will bounce because of the way he won," jockey David Flores said. "He only ran a sixteenth of a mile. After he went by those horses, I just sat on him. He did it so easy."

Zann has won 3 of 4 on grass, 3 of 6 altogether.

Other starters include pacesetter Northern Solider, Sartorial, and Potential. The longshot is John Sadler-trained comebacker Peter and Zoe. Sadler also entered two maidens for Cushion Track races - Ready to Walk in race 3, and Moneyplaysjoe in race 8.

"I like [Cushion Track]," Sadler said. "And I will like it until I run over it and get beat."