07/08/2005 12:00AM

Trainers give turf thumbs up


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Trainer Neil Drysdale has sometimes abandoned racing his stable on turf late in the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting, because he was concerned about the condition of the course.

"We'd say, 'That's it. We won't run any more horses,' " he said Friday while observing training.

This year will be different. Drysdale starts Golden Arrow in Sunday's Kerlan Handicap for turf sprinters. Next Sunday, on the final day of the spring-summer meeting, he plans to run Always First and One Off in the $150,000 Sunset Handicap. They will be his first runners in the Grade 2 race since 2002.

"The course is in good shape," he said. "They've done a hell of a job."

His reaction is a change from the consensus among horsemen last December, when Hollywood Park was forced to cancel turf racing on the final weekend of the fall meeting because of unsafe conditions, largely caused by drainage problems.

Drysdale's praise of the turf course is shared by fellow top trainers Doug O'Neill and Vladimir Cerin, both of whom said on Friday they are happy with the condition of the course.

"I haven't had any riders get off and say their horses didn't handle the turf," said O'Neill, the leading trainer at this meeting.

"I think it's better than it was last summer," Cerin said. "We haven't had a horse even come back funny from a race."

The course will be rebuilt in coming months, a renovation planned long before Churchill Downs sold Hollywood Park to the Bay Meadows Land Company earlier this week.

The project will begin July 18, according to turf course superintendent John Barrios. The existing course will be removed, and drainage will be improved by adding more sand. Sod grown in Arizona and Encinitas, Calif., near Del Mar, will be laid on the course by a self-imposed deadline of Sept. 1, Barrios said.

If that deadline is met, the new sod will have 65 days to grow before the first workouts are conducted in advance of the fall meeting, which begins Nov. 9.

"It will be a more dense turf," Barrios said. "It will have better cold tolerance. I feel like we'll really have something. I'm really looking forward to the fall."

Because the course has not deteriorated as significantly as in past years, racing secretary Martin Panza said he is hoping to use an average of three races per day in the final week of the meeting. For Sunday's nine-race card, there are three turf races, all of which are sprints.

"I'm not going to go nuts," Panza said. "I might run an extra two or three races" on turf in the final week.

Panza preserved the inside 15 feet of the course so that the American Oaks on July 3 would be run on fresh ground. That portion of the turf course is still in good condition and will be used in the final week, he said.

"That's ground that's been protected for six or seven weeks," he said. "Trainers can have the confidence that they will race on good ground."

Rock Hard Ten set to breeze again

Rock Hard Ten, held out of Saturday's $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup because of an interrupted training schedule earlier this spring, has returned to full training.

Trainer Richard Mandella said Rock Hard Ten is nearing his first breeze since May and "hasn't had a bad day in a month."

The winner of the Santa Anita Handicap in his last start in March, Rock Hard Ten was expected to dominate the local older male division on dirt this summer, but when he resumed training in the spring after a break, he was sidelined because of body soreness.

Mandella said he hopes to have Rock Hard Ten in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park on Oct. 29, with a prep race in the $500,000 Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap at Oak Tree at Santa Anita on Oct. 1.

Friday, Mandella said that Rock Hard Ten may have a workout this weekend and has not ruled out the possibility of a start before the Goodwood.

"There is a possibility he could be ready for a race at Del Mar, but I'm not worried about it," Mandella said. "It's too late for the Pacific Classic."

The $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 21 is the championship race for older males at the Del Mar meeting.

Owned by Mercedes Stable and Madeleine Paulson, Rock Hard Ten, 4, has won 6 of 10 starts and $1,570,380.

* The Sunset Handicap is one of three stakes on the final weekend of the meeting. Saturday's top race is the $100,000 Hollywood Juvenile Championship for 2-year-olds over six furlongs. Maiden race winners Bashert and What a Song lead what is likely to be a small field. Saturday's card includes the $75,000 Valkyr Stakes for statebred fillies and mares over six furlongs.