06/04/2007 12:00AM

For some, surface is the key

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Going into the 1 1/16-mile Milady Handicap last Sunday, trainer Carla Gaines had no clue as to how Nashoba's Key would handle Hollywood Park's Cushion Track surface in the heat of competition, especially with such heavyweights as Balance and Hystericalady in the mix. She had trained well enough for Gaines over the artificial stuff, but that was just practice. To that point her breeding, by Silver Hawk out of a Caerleon mare, had led Gaines in the only obvious direction. Nashoba's Key had made three starts, all on grass, and won all three.

By the time the field hit the top of the stretch, as Hystericalady began to extend her lead over the well-watered Cushion Track, Gaines sort of sighed at the sight of her filly on the outside, scrambling to make up ground, and figured, oh well, at least we gave it a try.

Then, bang-zoom! A light went on or a bomb went off, maybe both, because Nashoba's Key almost came out from under Joe Talamo with a final burst that will be talked about for weeks to come. Hystericalady went from home and dry to three-quarters of a length second in the final 100 yards, prompting her jockey, David Flores, to insist, "Honest, my filly wasn't stopping at all."

We believe him, although Gaines was still a little stunned.

"Wow, wasn't that something?" she said, shaking her head, as the Milady replay beamed on the infield board. "Look how green she's running, too."

True, Nashoba's Key was hardly the picture of straight and true. Nor did her lead changes come without fuss. But Talamo had his filly far enough into the center of the course that her meandering caused no grief, and now Gaines knows what she needs to work with before the division reconvenes in the Vanity Invitational at Hollywood next month.

Nashoba's Key races for her breeder, Warren "Spud" Williamson, a former director of Hollywood Park. Williamson has been a loyal Gaines client for many years.

"He's the kind of guy who doesn't worry if you don't get a filly to the races until she's 4, like we did with her," Gaines said, referring to Nashoba's Key. "There were a lot of little things with her. I'd tell him I needed to stop on her for maybe three months, and he'd say, 'Sure. Go ahead. Give her four.' You don't usually have that luxury in this business."

Ron Ellis and his patron Gary Broad have required similar patience with the ongoing project that goes by the name of Buzzards Bay, a great bronze statue of a beast who has been flirting with the upper reaches of the handicap division for more than a year.

Buzzards Bay, a son of Marco Bay, won the 2005 Santa Anita Derby for trainer Jeff Mullins and then was sold a few months later to dissolve a partnership. Ellis and Broad were attending the yearling sale when this grand-looking 3-year-old popped up at the end, and for $750,000 he was theirs.

But until he won the nine-furlong Californian Stakes at Hollywood last Saturday, overcoming a rocky break to beat Sun Boat, an upstart South American, by a nose, Buzzards Bay had not won since his 6 1/2-length romp in the 2006 Oaklawn Handicap. Buzzards Bay suffered an ankle tweak training on the Del Mar dirt last summer, and that was that. Ellis decided to tuck him away until the ground rules changed.

"The ankle X-rayed clean," Ellis said, "so I thought, we're getting synthetic surface at Hollywood. Why don't I just let him heal up and bring him back in the spring? Now, he's only two races into his comeback" - Buzzards Bay was third in the May 5 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap - "and a horse like him doesn't really have a chance to prep in the minor leagues. It's right to the big wars, which means I've got to push on him even now and train him hard for the Hollywood Gold Cup, since he's got to go another eighth of a mile."

The extra furlong is not the only challenge presented by the $750,000 Gold Cup, to be run on June 30. Lava Man is pointing for his third straight win in the meet's centerpiece event, and toward that end he will be running in the Charles Whittingham Memorial on the grass this coming Saturday. That means the Gold Cup will be Lava Man's competitive debut on Cushion Track.

"I don't know if that will make a difference to Lava Man," Ellis said. "All I know is that I've had a lot better luck at Hollywood Park, being stabled there over the winter. Horses seems to hold up a lot better. And it might even encourage people to give horses a little time off. Before, you'd give them a break and it was still only 50-50 they'd be able to make it back. You'd do all the right things, and it still seemed like you were working against yourself. Now, on Cushion Track or Polytrack, I think you can give a good horse a rest and have confidence that you can bring them back."

And Buzzards Bay is definitely back.