01/08/2009 12:00AM

San Pasqual surface long an issue


ARCADIA, Calif. - The San Pasqual Handicap is an innocent enough race. It does not strive for classic status. Victory rarely juices up a resume, which means winning the race must be its own reward, these days amounting to $90,000 of a $150,000 purse.

Good-enough horses have won the race, including Hall of Famers Native Diver, Ack Ack, and Precisionist, while some have gone on to bigger and better things, like champions Nodouble and Criminal Type, or Breeders' Cup Classic winner Alphabet Soup. For the most part, though, it's a ham-and-eggs event, with a bunch of hard-knockers suiting up for a blue-collar payday in the dead of winter. Like the bunch running on Saturday, topped by Well Armed, Slew's Tizzy, Magnum and Cowboy Cal.

More often than not, the San Pasqual comes up in the crosshairs of some kind of weather event. The history of the race is replete with muddy, messy runnings, including the first one these eyes ever witnessed, in 1973, when the track was packed hard against the rain, and a field of six pretty much paraded around in the same positions for the 1 1/16 miles. Single Agent and Jerry Lambert beat Kennedy Road and Don Pierce by 3 1/2 lengths.

Kings Favor was a solid runner from Washington who ran for the Elttaes Stable and carried his climate with him. In 1968 he won the San Pasqual in a five-horse photo over a sloppy track in 1:44.20, beating, among others, the eventual Santa Anita Handicap winner Mr. Right. In 1969, Kings Favor and his track were back to defeat Most Host in a 1:45.60 running of the San Pasqual. Later on, Most Host upset Damascus in a Strub Stakes contested over a similarly wretched surface.

Show of hands . . . who remembers Micarlo? Racing for Elmendorf and trainer Farrell Jones, he began the 1962 Santa Anita season in a hassle over racing papers and ended up winning the San Pasqual over a track generously called muddy. The final time of 1:47.80 told the tale.

Farrell's son Gary did the old man one better in 1976, when he got the talented Lightning Mandate back in one piece from a San Pasqual victory that required 1:48.40.

"It was a mile and an eighth, right?" Jones said when reached at home in Del Mar. And no, it was the same old mile and one-sixteenth, run that day over a sloppy top layer and base chewed to ribbons.

"Back then, when they lost it underneath, it was just a quagmire, a real nightmare," Jones said. "It was a clay-based racetrack then, and clay, when the seal is broken and it rains hard, turns into a swamp."

In that '76 San Pasqual, Lightning Mandate and Sandy Hawley defeated Guards Up by three, with Ga Hai and Dancing Papa not too far behind. No Bias, fresh from victory in the San Carlos Handicap, was eased by Laffit Pincay.

"I remember he was a big, strong chestnut," Pincay said. "He could hardly stand up that day.

"You had to have some guts to ride on those tracks, and let the horses run," Pincay went on. "Whatever is happening now is nothing like those times."

What is happening now is the second straight year of the San Pasqual arriving in the midst of controversy over the condition of a synthetic surface. Last year, the race was postponed a week because the newly installed Cushion Track surface soaked up the rain like a sponge. This year, the San Pasqual will be run over a Pro-Ride surface in the wake of a cluster of injuries during the opening week of the meet that has triggered criticism and prompted management to review its maintenance regimen.

"My main thing is consistency," said John Sadler, last year's leading California trainer, who won the rescheduled 2008 San Pasqual with Zappa, and has Mostacolli Mort and Noble Court entered this time around. "That's why I've trained a little lighter this week, with them turning the track over and doing a lot of work on it."

Three-time Breeders' Cup winner Dave Hofmans is another who has juggled in the face of the apparent surface problems, but has not lost faith in synthetic technology.

"You've got to be able to alter your training, no matter what the circumstances or the surface," Hofmans said. "If your riders don't like something when they go out early, change things. You don't have to do it the same way every day.

"There was definitely a problem with the surface," Hofmans added. "But it's a maintenance problem. And it will be solved. Anyone who would want to go back to what we had before with dirt tracks must have amnesia."

Memories are selective and sometimes fade. There are horsemen who prefer dirt because dirt is all they've known, and synthetics are still an evolving technology. Dan Hendricks, a trainer who tends to speak his mind, was asked the question of the hour: How bad were those old dirt tracks?

"They were so bad," Hendricks replied, "we replaced them with synthetic tracks."