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HORSE RACING

Air Commander wins at 52-1

January 13, 2008|Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writer

On a picture-perfect Saturday, a Santa Anita crowd of 11,936 was treated to a thrilling photo-finish race in the Grade II San Fernando Stakes as 52-1 longshot Air Commander nipped Johnny Eves at the wire, with favored Tiago finishing third.

With the sun beaming down on the scenic San Gabriel Mountains in the background, it was a particularly bright day for El Gato Malo, who with an impressive 6 1/4 -length victory in the Grade III San Rafael Stakes established himself as a leading Kentucky Derby contender.

Another bright spot was an optimistic viewpoint on fixing the troubled synthetic Cushion Track. It was provided not by Santa Anita officials but an outside source, USC professor Jean-Pierre Bardet, chairman of the school's civil and environmental engineering department.

Bardet, a professor at USC since 1984 and a department chairman since 2006, has been consulting Santa Anita officials on their difficulties since Dec. 22. He was at the track Saturday and believes the troubled synthetic surface can be saved.

The reason for the optimism is what he calls a "binder" brought from Australia by Ian Pearse, founder of Pro-Ride Footing. Bardet and Pearse have been testing this binder additive in USC labs since Pearse arrived from Australia on Thursday.

Santa Anita officials, taking a cautious route, were not ready Saturday to make any official announcement, despite Bardet's positive outlook.

Asked to explain in layman terms how this binder will fix the synthetic track's drainage problem, Bardet used M&M candies as an example.

"There is a hard shell around an M&M that prevents it from melting in your hand," he said. "This binder will put a hard shell around the tiny sand pebbles, the silt, that is causing the drainage problems, and allow the water to drain through it."

Asked about the track's most recent problem -- loose asphalt pieces showing up on its surface -- Bardet said he is confident that too can be fixed.

Some jockeys and trainers have feared the asphalt base, which lies on a bed of crushed rock, is breaking down underneath the seven-inch top layer of sand and synthetic mixtures.

But Bardet believes the loose pieces were created when the asphalt was sprayed-washed with high-pressure guns during the recent three-week renovation project and that those loose pieces can be cleaned up at the same time the additive, or binder, is applied.

In Saturday's other stakes race, the Grade II San Pasqual, recent claimer Zappa, a 6-year-old gelding who went off at 13-1, gave jockey Joe Rosario a nice present two days before his 20th birthday with a one-length victory over Well Armed.

Speaking of birthdays, Saturday was Joe Talamo's 18th and he had his fifth and six wins of the meet after starting 0 for 30.

In the San Fernando, which was the 10th race on an 11-race card, Air Commander jockey Aaron Gryder and trainer Bob Baffert both thought their horse had been beaten. But the photo showed it was Air Commander, triggering a winning payoff of $106.80, a record for the San Fernando.

Baffert said before the race someone in the stands asked him about betting on his horse.

"I told him make it a show bet, so somewhere is a happy fan," he said.

The horse paid $10.60 to show, a far cry better than Tiago's $2.60 show price. Tiago, the winner of the 2007 Santa Anita Derby, was racing for the first time since a fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 27.

El Gato Malo burst to the head of Southern California's 3-year-old class with a breathtaking rally in the San Rafael, covering the one mile in a Cushion Track record of 1:33.37.

The gelding, ridden by David Flores and trained by Craig Dollase, has three wins in three career starts at three different tracks by a total of 16 lengths.

larry.stewart@latimes.com

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