"Forget sigh," track president Ron Charles said at day's end. "This was a big `whew.'"
Having a successful month of racing going into the sport's richest two days could help attract reigning Horse of the Year Curlin to challenge Big Brown in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
"There's nothing more important than to show the rest of the country and the world that the surface is fair, consistent, and most importantly safe," said Charles, who has fielded calls worldwide from tracks considering switching to synthetic surfaces and horsemen weighing whether to enter the Breeders' Cup.
Wednesday's opening day feature, the $100,000 Morvich Handicap, didn't reveal anything about the new surface because it was run on the turf.
But it did give the winner, 22-1 long shot California Flag, an automatic berth in the BC Turf Sprint, one of 14 Breeders' Cup races to be run Oct. 24-25 at Santa Anita.
Ridden by Joe Talamo, California Flag covered 6½ furlongs in 1:11.10, bettering the old track mark of 1:11.13 by Lennyfrommalibu on Jan. 22, 2004. He paid $47.40, $16.40 and $9.
"We'll pay the entry fee and go in the Breeders' Cup," trainer Brian Koriner said.
Beaten by three lengths, wagering favorite Get Funky returned $3.40 and $2.80, and One Union paid $5.60 to show.
Easy on the Eye clipped heels with Ten Meropa a few strides out of the gate, sending jockey Corey Nakatani tumbling to the ground. Easy on the Eye ran the rest of the race until being caught by an outrider well beyond the finish line, while Nakatani was taken to a hospital for X-rays.
Richard Mandella described most of his fellow trainers as being "very happy" with the surface since training on it began a few weeks ago.
Tyler Baze, last year's leading rider at Oak Tree, said he had no problems in the day's first race, adding, "The track seems nice."
Talamo, who also rode in the first race, said, "The new surface felt great. I thought the fractions were very realistic."
Fans surveying the track on a sunny day with temperatures hitting the mid-90s noticed the surface is closer to dirt in color _ dark brown instead of the pale yellow of Polytrack at Del Mar.
Across town, Hollywood Park has Cushion Track, the same surface that failed to drain last winter when torrential rains hit Santa Anita. The fiasco cost the track 11 days of racing and millions of dollars in repairs, which involved mixing Pro-Ride material into the Cushion Track, which got it to drain.
Once the winter meeting ended in April, Santa Anita officials decided to completely replace the surface with Pro-Ride, a mix of dirt, fibers and polymer binders.
"What you see right now is pretty much the track we hope to see for Breeders' Cup," Charles said.
Workers cleaned up manure from the surface between races Wednesday, but the track is groomed as little as possible, a change from dirt tracks that are harrowed after each race. It will be watered only if the surface needs cooling off, Charles said.
"I have great hopes it'll just be better than ever, Breeders' Cup, too," said Mandella, who is also on Oak Tree's board of directors.
After watching the day's first few races, he said the track "looks like it's favoring the best horse. You're seeing real racing from the quarter pole home, instead of someone just staggering home surviving."
In the day's other incident, Honor Your Wager pulled up after the finish line of the second race with a lame right front leg and was vanned off the track.
MORVICH HANDICAP QUOTES
JOE TALAMO, CALIFORNIA FLAG, WINNER: “We had an absolutely perfect trip. Brian (Koriner, trainer) talked to me beforehand and we were glad Craig Dollase’s horse (Tropic Storm) scratched because we thought that would make it easier on us up front. As it turned out, Desert Code pushed us pretty good, but my horse was fresh and he ran great.”
JOSE VALDIVIA JR., GET FUNKY, 9-5 FAVORITE, SECOND: “The only thing I can think of is the heat sapped him, because he was just a little too quiet in the post parade, and he usually gets a little worked up. He was way too quiet. Even though they were going fast, he usually takes a hold of the bridle . . . I think today he ran second on class alone.”
BRIAN KORINER, CALIFORNIA FLAG, WINNER: “It was a step up but he had the speed. The lineup didn’t have any, the horse is training super, so we took a shot. The only race here for him was the Cal Cup (Oct. 5) and it’s on the dirt. The horse likes the grass way better. We had to go in this spot. I just told Joe (Talamo), ‘I won’t be disappointed if you hit the dirt and you’re five (lengths) in front, OK? We’ll pay the entry fee and go in the Breeders’ Cup (Turf Sprint, $1 million, about 6 ½ furlongs on turf, Oct. 25).”
NOTES: The winning time of 1:11.10 is a course record. The former mark was 1:11.13 set by Lennyfromalibu on Jan. 22, 2004. The winning owner is Keith E. Card of Murrieta, CA, who races as Hi Card Ranch.