02/12/2008 12:00AM

Whatever it is, it's working


ARCADIA, Calif. - Call it Cushy-Pro. Call it Track-Ride. Call it Ian's Brew, or call it just plain Polymarvelous. Whatever the emergency crews at Santa Anita came up with in the dead of night last week appeared to work, enabling racing to return to Southern California over the latest manifestation of an all-weather synthetic surface.

Good thing, too, because patience with the emerging synthetic era has reached an all-time low among California horsemen, who simply want to get on with the show. The 11 days of racing lost to a rain-soaked main track will remain as a grim reminder of track management's inordinate faith in the aggressive marketing of an unproven technology. Make-up days are planned, but the damage was already done.

Still, it must be conceded that the latest mix is performing as advertised - at least through three days' worth of warm, dry conditions.

Ian Pearse of Pro-Ride, in conjunction with resources at the University of Southern California Department of Engineering, managed to coat the problematic grains of Cushion Track sand with Pro-Ride's patented polymers. The resulting surface seems to be bouncy and soft. Horses make very little noise as they pass. Kickback is low and relatively non-abrasive, especially when compared to the punishing spray coming off the old Cushion Track installed last summer.

Both Pearse and Santa Anita president Ron Charles take pains to insist that the current Santa Anita surface is considerably different than the pristine Pro-Ride developed in Australia, with a grant from the federal government. Aesthetically, the current surface is a real Mulligan stew. The lighter Cushion Track has gone a dark, greenish-gray. There are remnants of the old Cushion Track carpet fiber and rubber chunks, mixed with a Pro-Ride addition that looks like the contents of a lint screen from an industrial-strength dryer. Furthermore, the added fiber failed to mix completely with the coated sand. White tufts litter the surface of the track, as if a king-size warren of rabbits had suddenly exploded, leaving behind only the tails.

If it bothered Well Armed, he didn't let it show. After winning Saturday's San Antonio Handicap, he now has proven himself a highly capable racehorse over no fewer than five different manifestations of synthetic surfaces - Polytrack at Lingfield, three different versions of Cushion Track (Oak Tree, Hollywood, and whatever that stuff was for the San Pasqual in January), and now this latest Santa Anita concoction.

But instead of sticking to proven ground for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, March 1, Well Armed's next start will be over a conventional dirt course against Curlin in the Dubai World Cup, where a purse of $6 million is more than enough to erase the memory of Well Armed's two ignominious defeats there in early 2006.

Well Armed did win a small seven-furlong event in Dubai that season, lending a little encouragement to the quest. And Harty, better than any California trainer, knows the lay of the land, having spent several winters training a string of Godolphin runners in the emirate before bringing them stateside to campaign. He figures Well Armed's speed could be dangerous in the desert.

"The further you go, the longer you get a chance to steal it," Harty said. "I don't think the distance is a factor with him. He just seems to carve out the same fractions all the way, whether he's going three-quarters or a mile and a half. He's just an old-fashioned galloper, and he looks like one, too."

Harty calls Well Armed his Trojan horse, and you can almost picture the massive gelding on wheels, neck arched, tail up, belly full of hostile Greeks. He is an enthusiastic, high-spirited animal with only one way of doing business. Either you catch him, like Zappa did in the San Pasqual, or you don't, like Heatseeker didn't in the San Antonio.

It was appropriate, in a roundabout way, that Aaron Gryder was aboard Well Armed in the San Antonio. For Gryder, it was his first time over the refurbished surface, but certainly not his first experience with the Pro-Ride product.

In April 2007, Gryder and fellow rider Richie Migliore accompanied Ron Charles on a fact-finding trip to Australia. Over a whirlwind two days - no Opera House for them - Gryder and Migliore worked horses over Pro-Ride tracks at two training centers near Sydney. The verdict?

"It had a lot of bounce, and it seemed kind," Gryder said after the San Antonio. "But the horses didn't go into it at all. You could see how the surface would spring back. We wondered if horses could really get hold of it at racing speed, although they seemed to like it."

As it turned out, Pro-Ride's lack of experience with anything other than training centers tilted Santa Anita's decision to Cushion Track, which already was in use at Hollywood Park. The $11 million backfire is now in the hands of attorneys, and Cushion Track reps are long gone from the Santa Anita scene, leaving the game to suffer and Pearse and Pro-Ride to try and clean up the mess.