07/24/2002 11:00PM

Scratch surface for form reversals

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The racetrack venue changes six times a year in Southern California, but the shift is never more severe than the move each July from Hollywood Park to Del Mar.

While the racing surfaces at Santa Anita, Fairplex Park, and Del Mar are similar in composition and how they are maintained, the Hollywood surface is a different animal. And according to many leading trainers, the difference was never more conspicuous than during the spring-summer meet that ended Sunday.

Horsemen contend that the Hollywod track was too dry, loose and cuppy on top, hard underneath. Jockeys said kickback from the sand-based surface "stung" horses and discouraged stretch-runners. "At Hollywood, speed prevailed," noted trainer Bill Spawr, who won 11 races from 71 starts. "Horses from behind did not want to run. You are going to see a reversal of form" at Del Mar.

Gripes about track surface can be brushed aside as typical trainer-speak, but complaints this year reached a fever pitch. While the Hollywood meet may be over, its effect will carry through the summer. Notwithstanding a diminishing horse population, handicappers will analyze Hollywood form and question how it should apply to Del Mar.

"Hollywood horses are going to have a hard time here," said trainer Paul Aguirre, who ranked third at Hollywood after winning 17 of 54. "You've got horses who did well who are kind of beaten up, and they were running against horses from other tracks who couldn't handle [Hollywood]. Now, horses that had spotty form are going to get to run at lower levels, and they're going to handle the [Del Mar] track, so they've got a double advantage."

Beyond muddled form, horsemen must deal with physical setbacks from Hollywood. Bobby Frankel, who led the meet with 23 wins from 88 starts, said his stable endured an inordinate amount of injuries to feet, suspensories, and ankles. "I don't usually blame the racetrack, but it wasn't me, it was everybody," Frankel said. "In all my years of training, I've never had anything like it. That's why I have a lot of my horses in New York."

Aguirre said his barn was similarly hit. "It's the worst experience I've ever had there," Aguirre said, calling the track inconsistent." He said, "Some mornings it's deep, some mornings it's hard. I've learned how to spot my horses, and not run sore horses, but the track wasn't doing us any favors."

The composition of most racetracks includes organic material, but Hollywood has more inorganic material in its surface than the other major California tracks. Hollywood uses a synthetic substance called "sports grids" in its surface, which often appeared dull.

Dennis Moore, Hollywood's track superintendent, was the man under the gun during the spring meet and admits to fielding more complaints about the main track this year. He said, however, that nothing has changed. "The composition this year was no different than last year," Moore said.

Moore said he uses a machine to measure the moisture in the racetrack three times a day and challenged the notion that the track was too dry. "That's not true, we were able to control the moisture," he said. "We know what our saturation point is, we know the composition of our soil, we know our optimum moisture, and when we don't have enough."

He said that fewer horses were vanned off the main track this year than last, and he noted that the only substantial difference in conditions was the unusually dry winter in Southern California this year. Lacking slow rain that saturates the ground underneath, soil can often become lifeless.

Blaming the racetrack for a lost race or an injured horse is an old trick. "You're not going to escape injury," trainer Craig Lewis said. "You're not going to have a 1,000-pound animal going 40 miles and hour and not have any risk factor."

As a track superintendent who receives the brunt of the criticism, Moore has heard it all before: "Racetracks are always easy to be a dumping ground" for criticism, he said.

Either way, Hollywood races will continue to show up in past performances of horses racing at Del Mar. It will be a handicapper's responsibility to determine their relevance. Lewis, off to a hot start at Del Mar with two winners on opening day, suggested there will be plenty of improved efforts this summer.

"The good thing about this place as opposed to Hollywood Park is they don't labor to get over it, and that reduces injuries," Lewis said. "Not that horses aren't going to get hurt here, they certainly are. At Hollywood, you might beat a better horse with an inferior horse" who handles the track. "That," Lewis said, "won't happen" at Del Mar.

Another trainer who arrived at Del Mar with a loaded barn was Spawr, who also won twice on opening day. "Horses are going to get a hold of this track better than one that cups away," he said. "They won't come back covered in mud, like it was an off track. That won't happen here. This is the best surface I've been on in 10 years. It's organic. It's like a sponge. Sore feet, they're getting sound. Sore ankles, they're getting sound."

There are no parameters to determine when Hollywood form is relevant to Del Mar, or when one should dig deeper into past performances. The nine opening-day races show plenty of room for interpretation. Four winners had form established at Hollywood, three were firsters or comebackers, two others reversed form following dull efforts at Hollywood - including $61.60 bomber Ponche de Leona.

A general warning concerns the odds. When the qualifications of a low-odds runner are based primarily on form established at Hollywood, that horse might be considered vulnerable. Conversely, horses who liked Santa Anita and tailed off at Hollywood might be given a second look when they switch to Del Mar and start at a hint of a price.

Form reversals are a reality. But they are never more severe, perhaps, than the first few weeks each summer at Del Mar.