Cushion Track Praised as Hollywood Opens

By Tracy Gantz
Victor Espinoza took only two races to become the first jockey to ride a winner over both Hollywood Park's new Cushion Track and Keeneland's Polytrack. Second in Hollywood's autumn meet opener Nov. 1, Espinoza won the second race aboard Robert Bone's Brite Red State, trained by Jeff Mullins.

Brite Red State came off the pace to win, a style of running that synthetic tracks may help.

"Horses that come off the pace are more comfortable," said Espinoza, who also won the final race on the card and the Bien Bien Stakes on the turf. "Two or three jumps out of the gate, they have the idea that the dirt is going to hit them in the face and they're already intimidated. Then 10 yards later they figure it out that it's not going to hurt them, so they put their heads down and they start running."

California horsemen, who have been nearly unanimous in their praise of the new Hollywood surface in recent weeks of training, continued to give Cushion Track a thumbs up after the first day of racing at the fall meeting. Six of the eight races were carded on the main track, all at sprint distances of 6, 6 1/2, or 7 furlongs, leaving the question of two turns for the meet's second day on Friday.

Trainer Mark Glatt won the inaugural event over Cushion Track with Matty G Whiz, a $45,000 claimer who most recently had run over the turf at Santa Anita. Glatt has been training at Hollywood Park for just a couple of weeks, but already he noticed an improvement in some of his horses.

"I've especially seen a difference in a couple of my horses that have nagging sorts of things like mild inflammation and hot feet," he said. "A lot of that has gone away and gone away quite quickly."

Glatt said that one 6-year-old in his barn who is very arthritic and "has a lot of miles on him" is doing especially well.

"There were days when he would dread training," the trainer said. "Now he bucks and squeals when he goes to the racetrack."

Trainer Vladimir Cerin agreed with Glatt, saying that in 12 days of training, he has seen some minor ailments disappear.

"I've let my horses get used to the track and gallop over it before I've worked them on it," said Cerin, who won the seventh race with Publication. "I saw the Keeneland training track when they first put in a synthetic surface, and I've been a proponent ever since. It's very resilient; you don't see the hoofprints."

Cerin expressed a little concern that the track on opening day seemed somewhat faster than it has been for training. The track was establishing records because of the new surface – the two six-furlong races going in 1:11.46 and 1:11.71; three 6 1/2-furlong races in 1:16.61, 1:19.07, and 1:19.15; and the seven-furlong race going in 1:24.77. The previous track records were 1:07.52, 1:13.20, and 1:19.97.

Mullins also likes the Cushion Track, though he said it would take a day or two to see how horses come out of the races. The trainer won the second race, finished third with She's All Magic in the fourth race, and had his final runner, Captain Squire, eased in the seventh. Captain Squire walked off the track on his own, however.

Kathy Walsh, who won the fourth race with Honky Tonk Baby, pointed out that fields stayed more compact instead of stringing out over many lengths.

"I've been really pleased with it, and I think it's going to revive California racing," Walsh said. She has felt that California has been unfairly tagged with having hard racetrack surfaces, which has kept people from shipping west. "Now we can get people to come back."

In years past because Hollywood's fall meeting is short and sandwiched between the Oak Tree and main Santa Anita meets, few horsemen moved their barns from Santa Anita, preferring to remain across town. But with the introduction of Cushion Track, the Hollywood backstretch by opening day had close to 1,800 horses. Martin Panza, Hollywood's vice president of racing, expected to be at capacity of 1,920 by Nov. 10.

Several Eastern stables are headed to Hollywood, including about 25-30 horses from Todd Pletcher that should arrive shortly after the Breeders' Cup. Others include Richard Dutrow Jr. and Lisa Lewis, as well as Patrick Biancone, who plans to base at Hollywood instead of Santa Anita, as he has in years past.

Trainer Richard Mandella has 32 stalls at Hollywood and is having to keep part of his large stable at Santa Anita. He said that not only does he like the new surface, he feels it is keeping jockeys from rushing horses early.

"It's obvious you don't want to let them go running off the first quarter for no good reason," Mandella said. "We've been doing that in California for too long, and it makes for boring racing and injury to the horses. I think that in itself is going to be a safety factor. Letting them get their legs under them and then get going, I think, is going to make for safer, more exciting racing."

No horse on the main track won on the lead opening day, with most of the winners coming from mid-pack. In addition, five of the six had at least one work over the surface, the lone exception being Mysterious Cat, who won the sixth race for trainer Cirilo Sierra. Most trainers seemed to feel that horses would need a work over the track to be effective, but it will take more days of racing to see if this holds true.

Philip Bond, the overseas business manager for Equestrian Surfaces, which produces Cushion Track, spent opening day scrutinizing the surface and talking with horsemen.

"We're very happy and the reaction has been very positive," Bond said, "though it would be unwise to draw any conclusions in the first day. I'd want to see about 100 races over different spreads to see how it is doing."

Bond expected to spend several days at Hollywood working with track superintendent Dennis Moore to refine maintenance procedures. The day's card went much quieter than usual, not only because tractors don't harrow between every race, but because hooves make very little noise as the horses gallop down the stretch.

Another place that may be quieter is the claiming box, as trainers try to figure out how horses' form holds up. Bone and Mullins, both active and successful claimers, pointed out that with the short Hollywood meet (which runs through Dec. 18), it might be difficult to claim a horse off Hollywood form because a horseman might not get a chance to run back at the meet and then would be into the four-month stint on Santa Anita's traditional dirt track.