John Sadler, the hottest trainer on the Southern California circuit, uses the words "cautious optimism" in labeling his approach to the upcoming season at Santa Anita. He is not the Lone Ranger. Conditioners from Barry Abrams to Howie Zucker, and everybody alphabetically in between, have the same wait-and-see posture. A coming-apart-at-the-seams Cushion Track will do that to a crowd.

"It's not like you just lay (the new track) down, and it's all ready," said Sadler, whose 21 wins made a farce of the trainers' standings at the recently completed Hollywood Park meet. "It's a little bit different than Wolverhampton." The condescending reference was to the English track that races on the synthetic surface Polytrack, a first cousin of the Cushion Track at Santa Anita.

In preparation for Wednesday's opener at Santa Anita, the 71st in the track's storied history, Sadler sent out 16 of his horses for workouts Sunday. They didn't want for company. Clockers recorded the times of 136 other horses who tried the sand-rubber-and-wax going, and there were 92 workouts over the main track the day before. On the Saturday, trainers were like a mob of shoppers at Macy's the day after Thanksgiving. They hadn't been able to use the Cushion Track for 19 days, or since unseasonably heavy rain created a drainage problem that threatened to drive Ron Charles, Santa Anita's normally unflappable president, to apoplexy. Sometimes, Frank Stronach, who pays the bills, must think that everything he touches turns to spit. This is a man who's given slot machines a bad name at Gulfstream Park, and after doling out $10 million to install Cushion Track in time for the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita this fall, this month it's cost him another $1 million or so, because the maintenance crew had to work double shifts after the rains came. Reportedly, the Cushion Track people are off the hook for the added expense. The old Act of God Clause comes in handy sometimes.

Charles, who's run his own horses for more than 25 years, will need three eyes at this meet: One for the turnstiles, another for the handle and the third for the weather report. Dry weather Christmas week may carry Santa Anita through the first days of the season. "There have already been some faux pas," said Sadler, dispensing with specifics. "We really won't know (how the track tinkering has gone) till it rains again," Sandler said. "This is all a learning experience. There's a learning curve, and the track will have to be tuned up a lot, by adding and subtracting materials."

Rain is as much a part of Santa Anita as the track's mountainous San Gabriel backdrop. There were only three off-tracks last season, as Los Angeles wintered through drought-like conditions, but Santa Anita ran 41 cards in the mud in the two seasons before that.

Rain or shine, Southern California's band of intrepid handicappers is going into this meet walking on eggs. But for an exception or two, the Hollywood Park meet was already a humbling time.

"In this wonderful season of cheer," wrote the handicapping guru James Quinn, "it's surely unpleasant to play the horseplayer's Scrooge, but when Santa Anita opens. . . with a renovated track surface, the prospects for success in handicapping should be less encouraging than ever. The adaptation to a circuit that now progresses from Cushion Track to Cushion Track to Polytrack to dirt to Cushion Track again has proved more troublesome than anticipated, and shippers to Southern California from Golden Gate Fields now will be exiting races on Tapeta."

The California Horse Racing Board's major-track, synthetic-surface ultimatum has left Fairplex Park as the only oval on the circuit with a natural-dirt layout.

So far, Into Mischief, surprise winner of Saturday's CashCall Futurity on windup day at Hollywood Park, is no conundrum; trainer Richard Mandella's colt, with two wins and a second in three starts, has run only on Cushion Track--a maiden win at Santa Anita and a second and a win at Hollywood. Mandella splits his stable between Hollywood and Santa Anita. The day after the Futurity, Mandella said that he would probably wait six weeks before he runs Into Mischief again. That respite would lead them up to the Bob Lewis Stakes (formerly the Santa Catalina) at Santa Anita on Feb. 2. Then Mandella could choose from two more two-turn stakes as preps for the Santa Anita Derby on April 5. Should all of this actually unfold, Into Mischief would go to Churchill Downs, for the Kentucky Derby, and be asked to run on God's dirt for the first time. By then, handicappers in the bluegrass might consider calling the Cushion Track-seasoned Jim Quinn for counsel.

No matter what game plan Mandella chooses, it's a cinch that Into Mischief won't do any running on a Wednesday. The only Wednesday racing at Santa Anita this season is opening day. Traditionally a Wednesday-through-Sunday operation (with an occasional holiday Monday), the track has switched to Thursdays through Mondays. Santa Anita's average on-track attendance left the five-digit range in 2002 and hasn't been back since. Mid-week crowds of less than 5,000 are so routine that they are hardly a cause for front-office hand-wringing anymore.

Charles is determined to reverse the trend. "We need to do something to stimulate business on our regular weekdays," he said. "We sought the opinions of a significant cross-section of our customers, and based on feedback from them and others in the industry, we believe that introducing regular Mondays is something worth trying. We believe that our product is going to be very well-received around the country on Mondays. It's worth a try. Continuing with the status quo was unacceptable. We feel that by tweaking the week in this way, we can draw more people on track, while also doing well out of state."

The first two days of the meet--Wednesday and Friday--there was an overflow at the entry box. Ninety-nine horses are entered in the nine races on opening day, and 90 more have shown up on the overnight for Friday's eight-race card. For the horseplayers, two days in heaven is better than nothing.