04/22/2007 11:00PM

Synthetic success story

Benoit & Associates
Hollywood Park last year became the first track in California to install a synthetic surface, and the initial fall meet on Cushion Track was a smashing success, based on handle and reduced injuries.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The optimistic consensus at Hollywood Park is that Cushion Track provides horses with a safer surface on which to run. But there is more to the story than healthy horses and a synthetic surface made of rubber, fiber, and wax.

In fact, the new material has provided the foundation for a virtual renaissance of Hollywood Park, which kicks off its 63-day spring-summer meet on Wednesday with renewed anticipation.

"For the first time in 15 years, people are saying they have been waiting for Hollywood," racing secretary Martin Panza said. Dwindling fields late in the Santa Anita meet indicated many horsemen were holding back, waiting for Hollywood to open.

The main reason is a safe racing surface. Hollywood last year became the first track in California to install a synthetic surface, and the initial fall meet on Cushion Track was a smashing success, based on handle and reduced injuries. The meet averaged 8.4 starters per race.

High request for stalls at the spring-summer meet gives Panza reason to believe the momentum will continue.

"There has never been this much demand for stall space," Panza said. "It has to mean something. If it's anything like fall, it should be a good meet."

Actually, spring should be even better with the emergence of a new 2-year-old crop and a turf schedule that includes two Grade 1s on Memorial Day - the Gamely and Shoemaker Mile - and the Grade 1 American Oaks on July 7. The Gamely could be a showdown between Wait a While and Citronnade. The Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup is June 30; Lava Man might try for his third straight Gold Cup win.

Beyond stakes, the overnight program is supported by a backstretch that is filled to the brim. From 1,960 stalls at Hollywood, Panza said, "every single stall is accounted for."

"I've got a ton of people that would love to get in here," he said. "That puts pressure on people to run."

The smallest field opening day has eight entrants; average field size is nearly 10. That is the number of starters in the Grade 3, $100,000 Wilshire Handicap, a one-mile turf stakes for fillies and mares that reflects the fresh start to the season. The horse to beat in the Wilshire has never raced in the U.S., and her jockey has never ridden at Hollywood.

Double Trouble, trained by Bobby Frankel and scheduled to be ridden by Joe Talamo, won 3 of 6 in Brazil, including a Group 2, and makes her U.S. debut in the Wilshire. Frankel did not win a single stakes during the 2006 spring meet at Hollywood, but this year he will keep most of his powerful stable in California instead of New York. Double Trouble would be a fitting first-day winner. That is, if she is good enough.

The Wilshire is Double Trouble's first start since Sept. 10, but Frankel said, "She's dead fit." Double Trouble got sick in early March, but resumed working more than a month ago. If she gets beat, it will not be due to lack of conditioning.

As for Double Trouble's rider, the 17-year-old Talamo, he threatens to make a huge splash in California. Talamo was named outstanding apprentice at Santa Anita, where he began riding in late March and won with 15 of 79 mounts. In turf routes, often a weak area for apprentice jockeys, Talamo was 4 for 19.

No jockey opening day has a stronger card than Talamo. He rides legitimate contenders in all eight races, including race-6 standout Natural Phenomenon, a $32,000 claimer and the most probable winner on the card.

Two main-track route races Wednesday at 1 1/16 miles - races 2 and 6 - will give handicappers an early indication how Cushion Track will play. During fall, only 14 percent of the main-track races were won gate to wire.

Wednesday in race 2, maiden filly Music and Magic, a front-runner, could shake loose as she moves from turf to Cushion Track. In race 6, Youhadyourchance is the clear speed of the field while dropping in class.

The Wilshire is led by co-highweights Charm the Giant, winner of the Hillsborough last out at Bay Meadows; Singalong, second by a head one back in the Grade 2 Buena Vista Handicap; and Quemar, winner of the American Beauty in her last start at Santa Anita.

Ben Cecil starts two, including 2006 third-place finisher Flip Flop and Ghurra, the beaten favorite in her last start. Grade 1-placed Flip Flop has accomplished more, but Ghurra is interesting because she had an excuse last time. Cecil said post-race bloodwork indicated she was suffering from a mild virus, but she has since recovered.