09/28/2011 5:09PM

Santa Anita: Meet opens with good reviews for renovated dirt surface


ARCADIA, Calif. – For the first time in two years, autumn racing returns to Santa Anita on Friday. The 24-day meet begins full speed ahead.

The racing surface is new again, horse inventory is up, the Players’ Pick five is in, and Breeders’ Cup berths are on the line in seven graded stakes opening weekend. The only thing missing is the Oak Tree Racing Association banner. Will anyone notice?

“I don’t think there’s much difference that the fans are going to see,” Santa Anita president George Haines said. “The racing here in fall speaks for itself.”

In fact, the racing figured to be superb no matter which organization ran the meet. Santa Anita gained control of autumn racing dates previously run under the Oak Tree standard, and so the racing program for fall 2011 is pure Santa Anita.

And what would opening day in California be without a new surface to deal with?

“Oak Tree would have been here last fall except for the track,” Haines noted. It was dissatisfaction with the beleaguered Santa Anita main track that led to Oak Tree to a temporary move across town to Hollywood Park. In the following months, Santa Anita took over the fall dates, and the racing surface went through another metamorphosis.

Early indications are they got it right this time. “It looks excellent, the consensus has been very good and everyone’s happy,” trainer John Sadler said. “Of course, there’s the usual caveat that we’re still a ways out, the true test will be January and February.”

The main track will not be tested under harsh, wet conditions until the winter meet that starts Dec. 26. But at least for now, it appears the surface mix agrees with most everyone. Consultant Ted Malloy explained the difference between the old dirt surface, which was installed last fall, and the new one.

“This has much less clay; the clay-silt content is half what it was,” he said. “Before, (maintenance crews) had to go through it two or three times to break up the clods of clay. Now, the harrows bring it up very smoothly.”

Malloy said the clay content in the previous surface was excessive – 9 percent clay, and a total of 22 percent silt and clay. The current content is 4 percent clay and a total of 12 percent silt and clay. “Those are the numbers we feel make it easier to manage the track,” he said. So far, so good.

“We have had favorable reviews of the surface,” Haines said. “And the turf course is in great shape.” Haines hopes the meet starts with a bang Friday with the Grade 3 Sen. Ken Maddy, and is optimistic that Saturday attendance will exceed 20,000 when four Grade 1 races are offered along with the popular Food Truck festival. A day later Sunday, a stakes doubleheader includes a Grade 1 and a Grade 2.

While stakes races usually are well-supported, an increase in the overall horse population could provide relief to the racing office. There are an estimated 3,000 horses in training at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, a 10 percent increase from winter.

“It should be sufficient for four-day weeks,” director of racing Mike Harlow said. “We should have full fields and competitive racing.” The autumn meet will be conducted on a Thursday-through-Sunday basis, with holiday racing on Monday, Oct. 10.

The Players Pick five, a 50-cent bet with a 14 percent takeout, will be offered daily on races 1-5. The wager will pay out only to tickets with five winners; consolations will not be offered. If no one wins the bet, the net pool carries to the following day.

After the Maddy on Friday, the weekend includes a conundrum of Grade 1 races on Saturday including the weekend’s biggest lock – front-runner Game on Dude in the Grade 1 Goodwood, which also attracted Acclamation.

Game on Dude is trained by Bob Baffert, who has one of the strongest stables and will be active with big guns in their final Breeders’ Cup preps. In addition to Game on Dude, his roster includes likely Norfolk favorite Drill, and unbeaten 2-year-old filly Candrea who runs Sunday in the Grade 1 Oak Leaf.

“We’ve got all the first-stringers, the big horses – Game on Dude and Drill,” Baffert said. “This is it.”

Blind Luck runs Saturday for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer in the Grade 1 Lady’s Secret; Simon Callaghan-trained Dubawi Heights runs Saturday in the Grade 1 Yellow Ribbon.