11/05/2007 12:00AM

The synthetic age travels north

EmailWhen Golden Gate Fields opens on Wednesday to join the synthetic surface racing revolution that has literally altered the landscape of California racing, it will become the fourth track in the state to race on a synthetic surface. And of those four tracks, three different surfaces are in use, with Golden Gate choosing Tapeta.

Hollywood Park was the first to go synthetic, and chose Cushion Track, the product that subsequently was chosen for Santa Anita, too. Del Mar went with Polytrack. Horsemen and handicappers have tried to adjust to the nuances of these surfaces, and have learned that there is a big difference, for instance, between the Polytrack at Del Mar and the Cushion Track at Santa Anita, both in terms of firmness and the race times.

Tapeta has been used for racing at just one other track in this country, Pennsylvania's Presque Isle Downs, which had a month-long meeting in September. Trainer Tom Amoss, who led the standings at that meet with 12 wins from 55 starts, on Monday cautioned that Tapeta throws another wrinkle into the equation for handicappers and horsemen.

"I really thought the Tapeta surface produced results that were all its own," said Amoss, who also has raced on the synthetic Polytrack surface at Keeneland. "It's like back when dirt horses first raced on turf - that produced results all its own. I found that Tapeta doesn't translate to Polytrack. Horses who like Polytrack don't necessarily like Tapeta, and horses who like Tapeta don't necessarily like Polytrack.

"Looking at that meet at Presque Isle, the percentage of winning favorites was lower than the national average, though I don't know if that's because of Tapeta or the track itself."

Amoss said Presque Isle was "a very safe surface."

Tapeta was chosen for Golden Gate months ago after representatives from Tapeta, Cushion Track, and Polytrack made presentations at Magna Entertainment Corp.'s corporate offices in Canada, according to Ron Charles, the executive director of Magna's California operations and the president and chief executive of Santa Anita. Magna owns both Golden Gate and Santa Anita.

Charles said that Michael Dickinson, the trainer who developed Tapeta, "gave a very impressive presentation."

Jason Spetnagel, the director of facilities and grounds at Santa Anita who oversaw the installation of Tapeta at Golden Gate, said Tapeta "is the best fit for the weather and climate" at Golden Gate.

"It's handled the rain they've had and the cooler temperatures," Spetnagel said. "Climate plays such a key role with these synthetic surfaces. The climate up there is perfect. It's not so hot that you need to cool the track down."

The California Horse Racing Board last year mandated that all five major California tracks had to install synthetic surfaces by the end of 2007. Bay Meadows subsequently received a waiver. That track may close as soon as next year.

The move to synthetic surfaces has received mixed reviews. Fatal injuries are down, but far from eliminated. At Presque Isle, three horses were euthanized over the course of the 25-day meeting.

In Southern California, trainers complain that hind-end and back injuries are much more prevalent now than on traditional dirt surfaces. Field size, though, is up. At the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita that ended Sunday, the average field size was 8.9 horses per race, up from last year's 8.2.

Golden Gate opened for training on Tapeta on Oct. 5. In the month that Golden Gate has been open since Tapeta was installed, two horses have been euthanized, including a Jerry Hollendorfer-trained claiming filly who broke down Monday morning.

Greg Gilchrist, one of the most respected trainers in Northern California, is based at Golden Gate and said he is "going to reserve judgment" on Tapeta "until they start racing on it."

"I can see the advantages," Gilchrist said Monday, referring to synthetic surfaces in general. "You don't have the mud. And one thing I've seen around the country is that two types of weather affect it, extreme heat and extreme cold. In Northern California, it's between 45 and 70 degrees 80 percent of the time. We don't get that extreme heat, so that ought to be a big help."

- additional reporting by Chuck Dybdal