01/15/2008 12:00AM

Track records fail to impress


ARCADIA, Calif. - Any sympathetic observer would have been watching the Santa Ynez Stakes at Santa Anita last Sunday with a certain amount of alarm. Two fillies were clawing at each other at level weights, with heavily-favored Indian Blessing under attack from Golden Doc A, and running faster than any pair of classy 3-year-old fillies had ever run before. Surely, something had to break.

To everyone's relief, they came back intact. Winning by a head, Indian Blessing added a layer of accomplishment to her likely honor as Eclipse Award champion, while Golden Doc A polished her solid reputation as a force to be reckoned with as the season unfolds.

In any other context, the fact that the two fillies tripped the timer in 1:19.89 for the seven furlongs would have been greeted with headlines and universal praise. The 1:20 barrier for seven-eighths of a mile has been a respected benchmark for decades. The former Santa Anita holder, at 1:20 flat, was no less than Spectacular Bid.

But at Santa Anita, the Santa Ynez provided just another track record in a series of flabbergasting marks set by a variety of animals over a range of distances. This plague of speed was brought to the sport by a Cushion Track surface that had been packed, rolled, and baked beyond recognition even by its creators, who had left town under a cloud of embarrassment and frustration over the fact that the "all weather" synthetic surface had to be defended at all costs against any kind of rain.

This is not to denigrate the effort of Indian Blessing at all. Making her first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, she was ready to answer a ferocious challenge at a difficult distance right off the bench. The Bob Baffert crew gets high marks for polishing their gem and taking an early January race as seriously as any other major stop on the campaign trail.

But just to put the clocking in perspective, before Sunday there had been 42 runnings of the Santa Ynez Stakes at seven furlongs. Among those 42 winners were such all-stars as Turkish Trousers, Susan's Girl, Tallahto, Terlingua, Very Subtle, Goodbye Halo, Serena's Song, and Honest Lady. They were faced, of course, with a variety of track conditions, from deep and muddy to sealed hard, and sloppy. In addition, each version would have been subject to its own scenario of pace. And yet, the fastest of any of those 42 runnings was a cluster around 1:21 and a tick or two, with the official stakes record of 1:21.11 held by the Baffert-trained Yearly Report.

At least for now, synthetic-track records are being kept separately at Santa Anita. But when they erase a traditional mark, it is noteworthy. Spectacular Bid's seven furlongs is not the only old record to fall in the new wave.

Sprint champ Kona Gold's local 5 1/2-furlong record of 1:01.74, set in the 1999 El Conjeo Handicap, has been cracked more than once, most recently by In Summation's 1:01.27 in the same event on Jan. 1.

Multiple stakes winner Son of a Pistol, Kona Gold's stablemate in the Bruce Headley barn, set the 6 1/2-furlong Santa Anita standard of 1:13.71 in winning the 1998 Potrero Grande Handicap, but that is ancient history now. Tropic Storm, an upwardly mobile 4-year-old with only five starts to his name, shaved the mark to 1:13.69 with an allowance win on Jan. 4.

Ruhlmann was a freakishly fast colt who reduced a mile to 1:33 2/5 on the undercard of the Santa Anita Handicap in 1989 (He went on to win the Handicap itself the following year.). Ruhlmann was replaced last Saturday by El Gato Malo, who won the San Rafael Stakes in 1:33.37, slingshotting off a 44.34-second half set by three accommodating opponents.

If nothing else, the spate of fast times at Santa Anita could help end once and for all American obsession with speed records. Theorists such as Andrew Beyer and Jerry Brown have done their best to wean horseplayers from the raw clockings, providing context and proving that there is more to a performance than simply the number on the board.

Still, we're all guilty in the racing press of trumpeting such numbers in pursuit of greatness, and there are a legion of lifelong fans who cling to time records as hooks from which inspiring memories dangle.

One of them, however, is not the Santa Anita 1 1/16-mile track record of 1:39.18, set on Jan. 6, 1993, by an allowance/claimer named Efervescente. Official timer (don't blame him) Jeff Tufts recalled the scene.

"It was the third race of the day and there was a big storm due in," Tufts said. Track superintendent "Steve Wood had sealed the track really tight that morning and when it started to rain a little before the races, he decided not to cut it open even a little bit. The rain stopped by the third, and there was virtually no water on it, but Steve was afraid to cut it open. Efervescente went the six furlongs in 1:09 and then kept on going to win by six."

Last Saturday, the 4-year-old former claimer Zappa established what laughably will be called the Cushion Track mark of 1:39.58 at Santa Anita for 1 1/16 miles in winning the San Pasqual Handicap. Welcome to the theater of the absurd. Zappa is a nice horse, but he's no Efervescente.