08/25/2010 1:22PM

Seems as if summer's surface has only been scratched


What’s this? The last weekend of August, already? And for some, even the end of summer. That was fast, but it always goes fast, like falling asleep in mid-June and waking up two months later, without a tan.

At least there is plenty to do. The summer of ’10 should go out with a bang. In Washington, D.C., the faithful of the flock will gather at the feet of the Right Rev. Glenn Beck to hear his version of the dream. Beck’s direct competition could come from the gang at Virginia Beach, where the East Coast Surfing Championships will be in full swing. And for those who prefer their worship to come wrapped in a different package, McCoy Tyner will play his piano at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival on Saturday afternoon in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, for free. Amen.

In the meantime, horse racing offers a bicoastal feast of 10-furlong, million-dollar extravaganzas, both of them offered on Saturday. At Saratoga, the best 3-year-old colts not named Lookin At Lucky will convene for the 141st Travers Stakes, while at Del Mar, 10 older warriors will gather for the 20th version of the Pacific Classic.

Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt will try to win them both for their WinStar Farms, with Troutt on the scene in Saratoga Springs with Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver and Casner taking one for the team, traveling to Del Mar to watch Hold Me Back in the Classic.

“I know, I know,” Casner said, acknowledging his sacrifice. “Somebody’s got to do it.”

Casner has family in San Diego, so that works out fine, and some unfinished business with the Pacific Classic, in which WinStar’s Well Armed lost a heartbreaker to Go Between in 2008. In Hold Me Back, WinStar takes a swing with a fresh horse, making only his fourth start of the year, and coming off a handy win in the 1 1/4-mile Dominion Day Handicap on July 1 over Woodbine’s version of Polytrack.

This time last year, Hold Me Back, a son of Giant’s Causeway, was busy finishing second in a sloppy Travers behind Summer Bird, who ended up champion of the division. In earlier efforts at age 3, this WinStar runner won the Lane’s End Stakes and finished second in the Blue Grass Stakes, both on Polytracks. And while Hold Me Back may not have the most consistent record in the Classic field, sufficient evidence has mounted to convince Casner and his trainer, Bill Mott, as to what kind of surface the colt prefers underfoot.

“Bill knows his horse, and he obviously knows what kind of horse it takes to win the Pacific Classic,” Casner said this week, before heading west from his Texas home. “Hold Me Back’s been training at Belmont, and doing well. I see no reason why he won’t run a very good race on Saturday.”

Hold Me Back will have Garrett Gomez aboard, never a bad thing, and especially in the Classic. Gomez won the race four times during the first decade of the 21st century – the “oughts” I think we’re calling it – aboard Go Between, Borrego, and Skimming twice for Bobby Frankel.

Gomez also will be Hold Me Back’s fifth different jockey in his last five starts, which reflects oddly on an outfit that usually thrives on loyalty and showing up. Then again, there would have been no turnover if Kent Desormeaux, the go-to WinStar rider at the time, hadn’t blown a high breathalizer reading upon arriving at Woodbine for the Dominion Day. Tyler Pizarro deputized flawlessly, and now Gomez is aboard for the big day at Del Mar.

Such drama normally would preoccupy the narrative. For Casner, though, who’s riding Hold Me Back is of considerably less concern than the recent struggles over the racing surfaces out West, where Santa Anita Park management will be removing its synthetic surface and replacing it with dirt.

From the earliest days of the emerging technology, Casner has been on board with synthetic surfaces. This even though the WinStar success in making stallions has come through victories in dirt-course races like the Derby, the Belmont, the Travers, the Haskell, the Donn Handicap, and the Dubai World Cup. Casner sees no contradiction, and cites Well Armed as the prime example of how synthetic surfaces can allow a horse to get to the peak of his potential.

“He’s a horse that toes in,” Casner said. “Dirt tracks magnify the slide of a horse’s foot, and that magnifies torque on their limbs. Any time you have a conformational flaw – and it’s a rare horse that’s perfect – the effects of the torque are magnified in turn. It’s just the laws of physics. Well Armed ran the greatest race of his life on dirt in Dubai, and clearly he is a better racehorse on dirt. But he never would have gotten there if he hadn’t been training on synthetics.”

Casner conceded that synthetic track technology is still evolving and that the perfectly “engineered” track has yet to be installed. He added, however, that Santa Anita’s decision to return to dirt, as promised by owner Frank Stronach, will have an impact on the number of young horses WinStar sends to California in the future.

“I’m very disappointed that Frank Stronach has chosen to convert back to a dirt surface that he cannot define,” Casner said. “I have always believed in letting the science and data speak. Pure data has no bias, and the data testifies overwhelmingly to the increased safety of synthetic surfaces.

“Every racetrack in California has significantly reduced catastrophic injuries since the inception of synthetic surfaces, and Santa Anita just completed the safest race meet in its history with only two breakdowns,” Casner said. “Yet it has now been declared ‘unsafe?’ The track will now be converted to an unknown. I pray they get it right and that the horse does not have to pay the ultimate price.”