06/25/2003 12:00AM

All wet tracks aren't the same


BOSTON - All along the East Coast we have had a spring-long lesson in handicapping for wet tracks. These surfaces create all kinds of problems from last-minute adjustments in your analysis, to the wiping out of turf racing, to the frequent avalanche of late scratches that leads to small fields and less value. These wet tracks also create a fundamental confusion for many players, summed up in the recent experience of Funny Cide.

When it rained all afternoon before the Belmont Stakes, many handicappers saw it as a good omen for Funny Cide. After all, he had run a big Beyer Figure of 110 on a muddy track at Aqueduct in the Wood Memorial, and had romped home on a good surface in the Preakness, earning a Beyer of 114. Clearly, he loved it wet.

His trainer, Barclay Tagg, didn't completely agree. On the day of the Belmont he worried that the deep slop developing with the steady rain would hurt his horse's chances. After Funny Cide's defeat, Tagg claimed the sloppy track might very well have contributed to his loss. He didn't think his horse had liked the going at all.

But how could Tagg say this? Funny Cide ate up the mud at Aqueduct, and demolished his opposition on a wet track at Pimlico. Why would Tagg be apprehensive about a wet surface at Belmont?

Tagg understands a basic truth about wet racetracks: All wet tracks are not created equal. Heavy slop at Belmont is not necessarily the same as a muddy track at Aqueduct or Saratoga. A wet-fast surface at Pimlico is not necessarily the same as a good track at Philadelphia - or a sloppy track at Delaware. They can all be quite different.

* The composition of each track can vary considerably. Some have more sand than others. Some have more topsoil than others. So the footing can have a very different feel from place to place.

* The variations from wet-fast to good to muddy to sloppy are critical. Some horses might prefer a quick wet-fast strip. Others might handle deeper slop more easily. The amount of water can make a big difference.

* The difference between a sealed track and a harrowed track is also a factor.

* Some sloppy tracks can have a huge speed bias, while some drying- out tracks can become very heavy and tiring as the water drains deeper into the track surface. Wet surfaces are also notorious for shifting biases during the course of an afternoon's card - as the rain keeps falling, or the rain stops and the track begins to dry.

* It's not just the footing or the bias that can affect a horse's performance. Getting mud kicked up into your face can discourage many horses. That's why speed horses have a built-in edge on seriously wet tracks.

So, Funny Cide could certainly have liked a muddy track at Aqueduct and then disliked the sloppy surface at Belmont. Just because he handled one type of wet track does not necessarily mean that he will handle another very different type. For example, if a horse goes wire to wire and wins by 10 lengths on a sloppy track, many people will assume that he's a "wet track freak." Not necessarily. Perhaps he simply benefited from being the lone front-runner on a speed-favoring surface. Next time he hits a different kind of wet track, or doesn't get the lead and has to deal with mud being kicked back at him - perhaps under these very different circumstances he might throw in the towel and finish up the track. Do we then conclude that he "can't stand up in the slop"?

Clearly, snap judgments can be very costly when you're trying to judge whether a particular horse will run well on today's wet track. You need to look very carefully at the horse's overall record. The Tomlinson rating might help with horses who have very little experience with wet tracks. The box score of in-the-money finishes on wet surfaces also has some value, but you need to analyze more critically the circumstances and more precise conditions under which the horse ran those races.

There are two other approaches I would recommend. First, do some Beyer profiling. Examine the horse's Beyer Figures on wet tracks. Does he earn consistently higher Beyers on all types of wet surfaces? That would make him a true "wet track horse" - a rarity in racing. Does he earn consistently lower Beyers on wet tracks? That could make him a throw-out. Or does he, like most Thoroughbreds, run some higher Beyers and some lower Beyers on wet tracks - depending on the circumstances, the bias, and his running style.

If you take the Beyer profiling approach, you will see that very few horses absolutely love every wet track. And very few horses absolutely hate them. Furthermore, most horses who have decent records on wet surfaces don't actually relish it. If they basically earn the same Beyers when they run well on wet tracks as they do on dry tracks, they're not "moving up" in the slop; they're just handling it - a key distinction. A quick bit of Beyer profiling can make all this clear.