01/10/2008 12:00AM

From the slop to synthetic


ARCADIA, Calif. - The bad news lingers. Last weekend's racing at Santa Anita was lost. But the weather was lousy, at least on Saturday and Sunday, and only the hardest of the hard-core were prepared to brave the elements.

Monday, though, was a different story. The electronic message posted on viewing monitors throughout the huge plant asked patrons to believe that up was down, that black was white. "Due to weather conditions today's live racing program has been cancelled," read the screens, at which point the gaze shifted, taking in blue skies laced by a few fleecy clouds. Birds sang. The wind was still. Jackets were optional.

There were other, more accurate messages considered. "Due to a disastrous meltdown on the part of the Cushion Track surface provided by the British company Equestrian Surfaces, today's live racing program is cancelled" seemed a tad bitter. "Due to a misplaced trust in the relatively new technology of synthetic racing surfaces, there is no racing today and we can't tell you when there will be" was discarded as too frank. "No racing as scheduled today, but please enjoy the lovely statuary" was at least a cheery option.

That same weather, maligned as the culprit, allowed Santa Anita track crews to put some sort of surface in play by Thursday, and if the main track holds up for the weekend, the rewards are generous.

This is especially true for Saturday, when the postponed San Pasqual Handicap will be added to a program that already featured the San Rafael Stakes for 3-year-olds and the San Fernando Stakes for 4-year-olds. The San Fernando, at 1 1/16 miles, is the highlight, for the simple reason that Tiago will be making his 2008 debut for owners Ann and Jerry Moss and trainer John Shirreffs.

When last seen, Tiago and jockey Mike Smith were among the noble survivors on Breeders' Cup Day at Monmouth Park, last Oct. 27. They finished fifth in the Classic, although not many noticed, since by then the scene was awash in mud and misery, in the wake of Curlin's conclusive score and the fatal breakdown of George Washington. Jerry Moss was asked if he had any trepidation about running his colt over the potentially dangerous ground.

"I had misgivings, except for the fact that earlier in the day we had a filly win on the track," Moss said, referring to Coco Belle, who took Miss Woodford Stakes on the Breeders' Cup undercard. "She's a slighter filly, compared to Tiago - much different animals - and the track wasn't as bad as it got later on. I pretty much held my breath for the Classic. Mike said he slipped once or twice, and that he was just lucky to get him back."

So it's out of the Monmouth frying pan for Tiago and into . . . what? Although Cushion Track has failed to work as advertised, Moss is not nearly as concerned about prospects for an unsafe track when Tiago returns at Santa Anita on Saturday.

"What's happened at Santa Anita is so sad," Moss said. "This is our premier track. But I think [track president] Ron Charles has great people working on it, and I don't think he'd ask people to run on a track that was unsafe. It's just that when the rain comes again, who knows what's going to happen?"

Moss is a member of the California Horse Racing Board that mandated all major California tracks install synthetic surfaces by 2008. Actually, Moss abstained in the vote to require synthetics, but he defends the intentions of the racing board - even in the face of the Santa Anita disaster - and he points out that his fellow commissioners were hardly alone in advocating the new technology.

"There were a whole lot of people on the bandwagon, saying, 'Let's go!' " Moss said. "There were very respected trainers, influential members of the TOC," the Thoroughbred Owners of California. "It was a real march. It was also a wonderful idea, and it still is. But when I abstained, I felt that there just wasn't enough data yet to mandate anything. All we really had at the time was one season of Polytrack at Turfway."

There is no doubt, Moss added, that the Santa Anita situation will affect any progress toward the acceptance of synthetics.

"It's going to be discouraging, because it feels like the people putting in these tracks just don't have it all together," Moss said. "I think the intentions of the board in mandating safer surfaces were good, but even good intentions need some support on the technical side. We've had very inconsistent surfaces, and the most important thing for horse people is consistency."

Tiago, if nothing else, has been consistent. From the moment of his surprise victory in the 2007 Santa Anita Derby to his victory over a field of older horses in the Goodwood Stakes last fall, Tiago was always mentioned among the best of a talented generation of 3-year-olds. After a troubled run in the Kentucky Derby, he was a distant third to Rags to Riches and Curlin in the Belmont, then returned later in the summer to win the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood before taking the Goodwood.

"I've seen him often since the Breeders' Cup," Moss said. "He's stronger and bigger - just beautiful - and we're really excited to see what the 4-year-old Tiago can do."