12/21/2009 12:00AM

Surface tension


After a five-day break, horseplayers in Southern California may be ready for the new season to begin at Santa Anita Park, but we will have to see if the synthetic Pro-Ride racing surface is going to make it from Dec. 26 through April 18 without facing familiar problems.

Think about it. Just a few weeks ago, the Pro-Ride surface - the same surface that produced generally formful races for the Breeders' Cup as well as the Oak Tree meeting - was deemed unsafe for training due to problems with the drainage system. The irony of this should not escape any of us, or be taken lightly as we move forward into a new season that will offer large wagering pools and some of the most important races in the country at one of the most spectacular racing venues in the world.

Like it or not, it will rain in Southern California this winter. It always does, especially during January and February. Fact is, no one knows if winter rains will put added stress on the racing surface that was supposed to be impervious to rain while providing a consistent, non-biased running surface.

In the Pro-Ride era, the track profile has fluctuated from meet to meet, favoring deep closers as it did for the 2008 Breeders' Cup races to a radically different profile that favored stalk-and-go types and pace- pressers through most of the 2009 Oak Tree meet. The stalk-and-go track profile would be a welcome one to play into, if it can be kept that way. But if you really want to show a profit during this meet, as previously counseled here and elsewhere, there will be no substitute for watching races carefully and charting daily trends as they occur. When the weather changes, we also will have to watch out for track maintenance procedures ostensibly designed to protect the surface.

Specifically, when rain is in the forecast, players should anticipate a speed-favoring surface. When the track is dry, we probably will see the stalk-and-go track profile re-emerge, but limited experience with this track suggests giving a slight edge to horses with stamina credentials for the distance. Also based on previous playing experience, I would expect horses with turf racing experience or turf pedigrees to do better on the Santa Anita Pro-Ride than at Hollywood Park. As many have observed, Hollywood's Cushion Track played more like a dirt surface when compared to other synthetic tracks.

Beyond these track-profile issues, there is one more weather-related fact about Pro-Ride that could play a role in the way we interpret form.

Should it rain heavily here, the water is supposed to drain right through the racing surface to conduction pipes designed to carry the excess moisture far away from the track. Should the drainage system fail - as it did a few weeks ago - water may lay on top of the surface and create small pools that in turn can become potentially dangerous holes where hooves ought not to tread.

This could lead to more interruptions of training or racing. While such interruptions create havoc for track officials, they also cost horses some of their relative fitness which in turn can leave horseplayers feeling as if they are playing roulette on horseback.

All of these issues help to explain why many horseplayers are reluctant to endorse the synthetic-track era. While I am personally sympathetic to the standard complaints and wonder if a change back to dirt is in Santa Anita's future, there are some money-making patterns that should not be overlooked by anyone seeking to cash tickets at Santa Anita. A few of the most reliable are offered below.

* Trainers who have a higher win percentage on this surface can be presumed to understand what it takes to get their horses in tip-top condition to complete here. Instead of worrying about Pro-Ride's issues, players might be better off picking out a few of these trainers to follow throughout the meet.

* Among these money-making trainers are some stabled at Santa Anita and some who remain at Hollywood yet regularly ship in to win Santa Anita races. Among the most prolific to follow include perennial meet leaders Mike Mitchell, Ron Ellis, and John Sadler, along with Kathy Walsh, Marty Jones, and Julio Canani, one of the best trainers of middle-distance turf specialist in the region.

* Horses with solid Pro-Ride form deserve a "horses-for-courses" edge that resembles the advantage players rightfully assign to winter-track performers on the inner dirt at Aqueduct. By example, Korban, a Jones trainee who won two on the Pro-Ride last winter, should be on your DRF Stable Mail list.

* The horses-for-courses angle also applies to proven performers on Santa Anita's unique downhill turf course. Yet, horses with good overall form at one mile on the turf also tend to appreciate the opportunity to compete at the 6 1/2-furlong turf distance. Speedy turf milers actually have wonderful win profiles for the Santa Anita turf sprints. Compari, a lightly raced turf miler, would seem to be one to follow when Jones places him in a Santa Anita turf sprint.

* Horses turning back in distance from a speed try going a mile or longer on turf, dirt or synthetic to a 6 1/2-furlong or seven-furlong main-track sprint tend to enjoy a universal advantage at tracks throughout America. But my stats from the previous Pro-Ride meets suggest that this pattern is more potent when linked to a significant class drop.

* Loose front-runners and horses who seem in ideal spots relative to the probable pace are not nearly as reliable on Pro-Ride as horses with back class or previous winning form on the surface. In other words, pace is trumped on Pro-Ride by winning trainer patterns, winning local form, and by fit horses that have run well against better.

* Dirt form is almost irrelevant on this track, the same way it is almost irrelevant on a turf course. But good turf form translates well to this synthetic surface, perhaps better than any other synthetic track in America.

* Hall of Fame trainer Billy Mott will be here with the Juddmonte horses he has inherited from the late Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel. While Mott only has made sporadic trips to Santa Anita for selected stakes, no one should doubt his ability to figure out what will be necessary to win here with the good stock he will have at his disposal. At the very least, Mott is one of the best trainers of turf horses in the world.

* While jockeys Garrett Gomez and Mike Smith are the two most dependable money riders on the grounds, young Joel Rosario showed marked improvement here in 2008 and continued his development through 2009. A player can make money wagering on Rosario's mounts for trainers who use him as their go-to rider.

Likewise, the equally youthful Joe Talamo seems to have recovered his promising form of 2007 and is an excellent fit on most turf horses. Rafael Bejarano, another turf ace and Santa Anita's leading rider last year, is among the most versatile, most consistent jockeys in America. Surprisingly, Bejarano does not attract excessive wagering action despite his excellent credentials.

Ahmed Ajtebi, the young citizen of Dubai who rode Vale of York to an upset victory over probable 2-year-old champion Lookin at Lucky in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, also will be at Santa Anita for part of the meet, while Chantal Sutherland, who finished 11th in the 2008-2009 standings, is likely to go under the radar despite her proven skills.

As a concession to the economy, the track's most prestigious Grade 1 stakes for older horses, the Santa Anita Handicap on March 6, will be a $750,000 race this year after many years as a $1 million affair. The Santa Anita Derby for 3-year-old Kentucky Derby prospects was reduced to $750,000 in 2009 and will be run at that purse April 3.