01/31/2007 1:00AM

Synthetic preference still up in the air


ARCADIA, Calif. - Santa Anita Park could have used a synthetic racing surface on its main track on Wednesday morning.

A day after nearly a quarter-inch of rain fell in Southern California, there was limited training on the main track, with the course opening late for full training and only 28 horses recording official workouts.

By comparison, 100 horses were given workout times at Hollywood Park, which installed a synthetic surface on its main track last summer.

Santa Anita will install a synthetic surface this summer - in advance of the California Horse Racing Board's deadline that all of the state's Thoroughbred tracks have such a surface installed by the end of the year. But Santa Anita president Ron Charles said track officials have not determined what sort of surface will be installed.

Wednesday, he said the finalists remain Cushion Track, which is used at Hollywood Park; Polytrack, which has been installed at Woodbine, Keeneland, and Turfway Park and is in the process of being installed at Del Mar; Tapeta, which is scheduled to be installed this summer at Golden Gate Fields; and Pro-Ride, a surface manufactured in Australia.

Charles said a decision on which surface will be used will be made in March, with installation scheduled to begin in late July when the Del Mar meeting starts and Santa Anita's barn area will be closed.

"I think we have a little more time" to decide, Charles said. "We're still reviewing all of them."

Charles said that track representatives are scheduled to travel to Australia and Dubai to inspect synthetic surfaces in coming weeks. Charles said that the way different surfaces react to warm temperatures is a major consideration. Summertime temperatures can crack 100 degrees at Santa Anita, but seldom surpass 90 at Hollywood Park. Conversely, Santa Anita had several mornings in January when temperatures fell to freezing or just below.

"It's a work in progress," he said. "You look at Woodbine, Turfway Park, Keeneland, and Hollywood Park, and look at other tracks that have similar types of climates as we do. I think this is something that all of us are learning.

"We need to do our due diligence. That makes it a tough call. When a decision is made, it will be with the most information possible."

Sinister Minister launches comeback

Sinister Minister, the winner of the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland last April, makes his first start since September in an optional claimer over 1 1/16 miles on Friday.

Trained by Bob Baffert, Sinister Minister has not started since finishing fourth as the 4-5 favorite in the Windy Sands Handicap at Del Mar last September. The stakes was his only start of the summer, following a 16th place finish in the Kentucky Derby last May.

After the Windy Sands, Baffert said that he wanted to give Sinister Minister time off in advance of his 4-year-old campaign. A winner of 2 of 7 starts and $509,246, Sinister Minister has been plagued by foot problems.

In recent weeks, Sinister Minister has worked quickly, including six furlongs from the gate in 1:10.80 at Santa Anita on Jan. 10 and six furlongs on the synthetic surface at Hollywood Park last Saturday in 1:11.20. Both were the fastest recorded works at the distance.

Sinister Minister has eight opponents, including Mambo Train, who was graded-stakes-placed in 2005; Neko Bay, who showed considerable promise last year before being sidelined because of injury; and Racketeer, the winner of an allowance race at Santa Anita on Jan. 13.

Neko Bay has won 2 of 3 starts. Trained by John Shirreffs, Neko Bay was second in the Alydar Stakes at Hollywood Park last May.

Stakes winner dies following workout

Halo Steven, a four-time stakes winner in western Canada last year, died of an apparent heart attack after a workout at Hollywood Park on Sunday, trainer John Sadler said.

A winner of 6 of 12 starts and $341,819, Halo Steven was being prepared for Saturday's $300,000 Strub Stakes.

"He was working three-quarters, and after the wire he fell over," Sadler said. "I've had two of those happen in 27 years."

Owned by Marta Racing Ventures, Halo Steven finished fifth in the Grade 2 San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 13 in his final start.

A maiden claimer when he began his career at Calder in the fall of 2005, Halo Steven won four stakes at Hastings, Northlands Park, and Stampede Park last year. His most prestigious win came in the British Columbia Derby in September 2006.

The Strub will have a small field, led by Awesome Gem, the winner of the San Fernando, and Brother Derek, the winner of the 2006 Santa Anita Derby. Other probable starters are Arson Squad, Fairbanks, and Midnight Lute.

Siren Lure preps for San Carlos

Siren Lure, the winner of three graded stakes last year, worked six furlongs in 1:11.80 at Hollywood Park on Wednesday and remains on course for the $150,000 San Carlos Handicap on Feb. 17, trainer Art Sherman said.

The seven-furlong San Carlos may be the end of Siren Lure's days as a sprinter. Sherman has been saying since last year that he wants to try Siren Lure over longer distances, although he said he does not have a goal in mind beyond the San Carlos.

At the same time, Sherman said, "They keep bugging me about Dubai" - the $2 million Golden Shaheen for sprinters on March 31.

"I want to see how he comes out of this race," Sherman said.

* Leading jockey Garrett Gomez has been suspended for five days for causing interference in last Sunday's fifth race. Gomez's suspension runs from Feb. 7-11.

* Jockey William Antongeorgi III, who on Sunday was unseated from Fappiano's Legacy, returned to riding and won Wednesday's second race on Fleet Caroline ($6.60).