08/16/2009 11:00PM

Achieving synthetic consistency

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During the three-year history of the Polytrack era at Del Mar racetrack, horseplayers have had to deal with significant changes from season to season, if not week to week.

In 2007, the Polytrack surface was at least three seconds slower than the dirt track at sprint distances, and upwards of five seconds at 1 1/8 miles.

We certainly had never seen anything like the the slow 2007 Polytrack that produced a 2:07 clocking in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at 1 1/4 miles. Indeed, this clocking was more than eight seconds slower than the track record that had been set on Del Mar's dirt main track for the distance, a clocking that would have approximated par for a $5,000 claiming race at Thistledown.

Aside from a regular stream of slow clockings at Del Mar in 2007 was the bizarre fact that morning workouts on the Polytrack were as fast as they had been prior to the installation of this new synthetic surface.

As has been documented here and elsewhere, the disparity in clockings from morning to afternoon was, it seemed, caused by the rapid evaporation of moisture out of the surface which occurred each day as the morning cloud cover dissipated under the afternoon summer sun.

From this experience, Del Mar officials and the manufacturers of Polytrack decided to compensate in 2008 by adding periodic truckloads of water during the racing cards. The cooling effect of the added water was immediately noticeable to horsemen and horseplayers alike.

Not only did the difference narrow between the speed of morning workouts and races in the afternoon, a somewhat predictable track bias developed favoring rally-wide stretch runners. While this bias did not influence the outcome of all main-track races at all distances, it occurred often enough in 2008 to become a reliable handicapping factor for Del Mar horseplayers.

With that background and with the moisture-related track maintenance issues resolved, horseplayers entered the 2009 season expecting to see a racing surface with similar stretch-running tendencies. But through the first four weeks of this high-class summer meet, we can see that nothing is static about the Polytrack era at Del Mar.

During the first two weeks of the 2009 season, we did see more days that accented stretch-runners. But as the meet has progressed - as Del Mar has gained insight and experience managing its tricky, very sensitive racing surface - we have seen the track evolve into a surface that is producing results that should satisfy horsemen and horseplayers in equal measure. Consider the track profile for the 31 main-track races that were run from Wednesday, Aug. 12, through Sunday, Aug. 16.

* On Aug. 12, one of the five main-track races was won wire to wire, but three of the other four were won by horses that were right on top of the pace or took command in the upper stretch.

* On Aug. 13, only one of the seven main-track races was won wire to wire, but three others were won by horses who pressed the pace or stalked the leader before taking the lead in the upper stretch.

* On Aug. 14, five of six main track races were won wire to wire, a track profile for a single racing card that had not occurred in 2007 or 2008, nor during the first few weeks of the current meet.

* On Aug. 15, two of the seven main-track races were won wire to wire, while two more were won by horses in close attendance to the pace.

* On Aug. 16, one of the six main-track races was won wire to wire, while midpack closers and deep closers dominated all other main-track races similar to the way they performed on the majority of racing days in 2008.

Here are the running style totals for the week: There were 10 wire-to- wire winners, nine winning stalkers, and 12 midpack or deep closers.

Some new harrowing and manicuring equipment has helped to bring this stabilization about. So has a relatively consistent watering schedule that has kept the wax polymers cool while limiting changes in the way the track has played.

For this, Del Mar officials should be applauded as they have fought to overcome the erratic, extremely slow surface of 2007 and similarly sought to mute the bias that was in play through much of 2008. Even more valuable to horseplayers has been the decision by track officials to regularly post on the track website the detailed track maintenance schedule for each racing card.

The website spells out the depth of the track cushion before and after training hours as well as before the track is set up for the day's races.

The notes on the Del Mar website specify the watering schedule, a most important detail considering that any change in the moisture content of a synthetic track is almost guaranteed to impact the way the track plays.

Below are Del Mar's track maintenance notes for Saturday, Aug. 15. Similar notes are archived for every previous racing day and will be updated as the meet moves forward.

Edited track maintenance notes for Del Mar:

Aug. 14, 8-8:30 p.m. Gallop Masters set to racing depth (2 5/8 inches), groom from inside to outside rail.

Aug. 15, 7-7:30 a.m. Gallop Masters set to racing depth (2 5/8 inches), groom from inside to outside rail.

Aug. 15, 8-10:30 a.m. Training on Polytrack.

Aug. 15, 10:45-11:15 a.m. Gallop Masters set to 4 1/2 inches, groomed from inside to the outside rail.

Aug. 15, 11:15-11:45 a.m. Gallop Masters set to racing depth (2 5/8 inches), groomed from the inside to outside rail.

Aug. 15, 11:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m. Three loads of water.

Aug. 15, 1 p.m. Air temperature, 73 degrees.

Aug. 15, 1 p.m. Track temperature, 82 degrees.

Aug. 15, 1:15-1:45 p.m. Gallop Masters set to racing depth (2 5/8 inches), groom from inside to outside rail.

Definitions

Polytrack is a composite of silica sand, wax, fabrics, and recycled rubber.

Gallop Masters are the reel harrows that you see pulled by tractors prior to each race. The harrows can be set to "training depth" (3-4 inches) or "race depth" (2-3 inches). They help provide for an even and level surface.

Cultivator - A new device used with the Gallop Masters for stirring the racecourse, before racing, to aerate and loosen the Polytrack to assist in creating a consistent and safe surface. It is powered by a tractor and mixes the Polytrack, usually to a greater depth (2-6 inches) than does the power harrow. Cultivators are usually raised and lowered by a three-point hitch and the depth is controlled by gauge wheels.

Power harrow - A tractor-pulled harrow used to loosen the Polytrack. The general purpose of the power harrow is to provide an even and level surface along with delivering a finer finish. Harrows loosen the Polytrack and allow for water to soak through. The power harrow is used on non-racing days.

Track renovation is always at 2 1/2-inch depth.

Water - Reverse osmosis water system has been installed and is used to provide only purified water to the Polytrack, as needed.

The Del Mar website also offers local weather conditions for each racing day as well as the rail position for the Del Mar turf course, a factor that can influence the effectiveness of early speed types. In my judgment, there is good reason for all tracks - especially those with synthetic surfaces - to provide similar information about their track maintenance schedules on their websites. The game is tough enough without forcing horseplayers to guess how the racing surface has been set up for the day.