Updated on 09/15/2011 1:24PM

Top turf meet gets under way

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Benoit & Associates
Hollywood Park's fall meet offers two main highlights - the three-day Autumn Turf Festival; and two Grade 1's for 2-year-olds, the Hollywood Futurity and the Hollywood Starlet.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Hollywood Park, which annually presents some of the best turf racing in California, begins its autumn meet Wednesday a little bit like a sitting duck. One look at the opening-day card - which averages seven runners per race - and you have to wonder whether racing secretary Martin Panza has any concerns.

Panza admited that drawing only 57 entrants on Wednesday's seven-race card did not qualify as a flying start to the meet. "Do we want higher numbers? Sure, but I don't have a maiden-25, or a maiden-32 [opening day]," Panza said. "I'm not too worried about the first two days. I knew we'd have to struggle through [them]."

Track officials expect only about 6,000 fans Wednesday (admission is free), but momentum is certain to pick up Friday night (first post 7 p.m.) and through the weekend.

"We'll have 15,000 or 20,000 Friday, so when do you want the numbers?" Panza said. "I want them Friday night. Compared to last year, when it seemed like we were running six-horse fields every race, I'm much more optimistic."

Panza has every right to be. The meet's first big event, three-day Autumn Turf Festival, is right around the corner, on Thanksgiving week. In addition, an equine sickness on the backstretch that hindered the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita (field size was down .4 starters per race, to an average of 8.0) conceivably may work in Hollywood's favor. Most of the horses who were sick and unable to race at Oak Tree have recovered. It is time for them to run. With some 1,400 horses stabled at Hollywood Park, and another 1,800 stabled at Santa Anita, Panza has a "live" population of more than 3,200 runners to drawn on for the six-week meet that ends Dec. 17.

The "early" Dec. 17 conclusion of the Hollywood is also a plus. A nine-day break between meets (the Santa Anita winter meet that follows opens on Dec. 26), creates pressure for horsemen to start their runners before the Hollywood meet ends. Also, Santa Anita will open with a relatively fresh population. As Panza said, the break between meets should help Hollywood's field size throughout the season.

"I can't write every race the last week of the meet, so they'll have to run [earlier]," he said.

The fall meet offers two main highlights - the three-day Autumn Turf Festival Nov. 23-25 which features six graded turf stakes; and two Grade 1's for 2-year-olds, the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 15 and the Hollywood Starlet on Dec. 16. California's top 2-year-olds - Siphonic and Came Home - are pointing for the Futurity, along with the talented but twice-beaten Officer.

The Turf Festival culminates Sunday, Nov. 25 with a pair of $500,000 Grade 1's - the Hollywood Derby for 3-year-olds and Matriarch for fillies and mares. Two Grade 2, $200,000 turf races will be run Friday, Nov. 23 - the Hollywood Turf Express at 5 1/2 furlongs, and the one-mile Miesque for 2-year-old fillies. On Saturday, Nov. 24, the Grade 2 $500,000 Citation Handicap for older horses will be run, along with the Grade 3 Generous for 2-year-olds.

Among possible starters in the Turf Festival are several runners coming out of the Breeders' Cup. They are: Mile winner Val Royal in the Citation; Filly and Mare Turf runner-up Spook Express in the Matriarch; and Sprint fourth-place finisher Swept Overboard in the Turf Express.

The makeup of the Hollywood Derby will be partially determined by what transpires in the opening-day feature. A field of seven, led by European listed stakes winner Momentum, Pomona Derby winner Sigfreto, and comebacker Learing at Kathy race a mile on grass in the $70,000 Bien Bien on Wednesday.

Learing at Kathy threatened to become one of the top 3-year-old turf runners this summer at Hollywood, where he finished third in the Grade 3 Will Rogers and second in the Grade 2 Cinema Handicap. Trainer Vladimir Cerin stopped on the gelding before he got to Del Mar.

"He just wasn't doing good; he was body sore," Cerin said. "Now, he's he sound, and should stay that way."

Learing at Kathy worked a mile Oct. 26 in a quick 1:36.60, and had company the final five furlongs of the work. He looked strong throughout, finished with run, and should be sitting on a smasher first start back.