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Artificial myth debunked
Polytrack is here and it's going to be extremely important for horseplayers to pick up on trends as quickly as possible in order to handicap races with any precision.
While some might want to proceed with extreme caution, the longer it takes for any player to gain the needed insight into the way a track is playing the less likely the payoffs will be worth worrying about.
Before discussing some early Polytrack trends that have surfaced, there is need to briefly lay out several thoughts on track bias as a traditional handicapping factor.
As some may know, I coined the term about 40 years ago and have watched in amusement as many players have distorted its essential value as a handicapping factor through the years.
* Track biases do exist. Contrary to popular misconception, there have been some biases that have occurred on the Polytrack at Turfway, just as they occur periodically at most racetracks, several times a season. When biases do occur, they can dramatically influence the outcome of races.
* Biases do not occur as often as most players believe.
* A truly top-class horse can run through a track bias, just as he may survive a wicked early pace and still run strongly to the wire.
* The only way to truly detect a track bias is to know in advance of the race what each horse is capable of doing on a neutral track. This has nothing to do with whether a horse was the betting favorite or a longshot. Only when you can plot in advance the likely pace scenario can you judge whether a bias aided the front-runners or stretch-runners, etc. This is where most players make their greatest mistake in evaluating biases. A fast horse that runs to his logical form characteristics does not prove the existence of a bias.
Looking only at a potential speed bias, here are two considerations worth keeping in mind.
* When the first two or three races are won by front-runners, a bias should not be assumed unless there was a strength-sapping speed duel that should have depleted their energy reserves.
* When two or three speed horses gang up on each other and at least two continue to hold off the late speed to the wire, a speed bias might be in play. Likewise, when a front-runner or two wins the first two races on the card, a bias should not be assumed unless the horses were stone-cold quitters. In that case, these weak-hearted horses may well have been carried farther by the track.
Contrary to many news reports, Turfway Park is not the first American track to install an artificial surface for racing purposes. The first - called Tartan Track - was manufactured by the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M) and briefly was in use at old Tropical Park in the 1960's.
In Turfway's case, the myth that accompanied the installation of Polytrack was that there would be no track biases. The proponents stated unequivocally that Polytrack would be consistent with minimal daily changes in its speed conduciveness, moisture resistance, and other racing characteristics.
After the track made some adjustments to the surface for the 2006 season, this much is known: The level of safety for horses and jockeys has improved, which is a big, big plus. But it is not bias free, nor is it consistent from a speed standpoint.
To confirm my own personal observations on this, I asked Andy Beyer, whose team of associates make daily track variants at Turfway and publish the famed Beyer Speed Figures for all races in America in Daily Racing Form.
Beyer: "Turfway this year is much, much faster than it was last year. It seems that they can and do make drastic changes in the track. On the day Polytrack was introduced in 2005, the variant was plus 9. By the end of the fall meeting the faster days were minus 10.
"This fall the variant was minus 9 when the meet opened; they have sped up the track, and it has been as fast as minus 33 the past week.
"There haven't been many days when I've made multiple variants - not as often as on a dirt track, at least. But for me, the big surprise about the artificial surface has been this. I had assumed, as did most people, I believe, that the track would change very little from day to day. In fact, the inherent speed of the track can change dramatically; it appears that track superintendents can speed up or slow down a Polytrack surface even more profoundly than they can change a traditional dirt track."
Get that folks? Track superintendents may be able to assert more control over the relative speed of Polytrack than over "normal" dirt tracks! If you want proof, just check out the result charts in this issue of Simulcast Weekly and compare them against previous weeks. I am sure you will note the radical differences between clockings at the same distance for the same class of horses in each week.
On a few of the days in this week's charts, note also how dominant front-running speed was, only to see the pattern disappear the next day. If you looked at the past performances of the horses who ran on those days you will see evidence of a bias and equally strong evidence that it disappeared just as quickly as it was in play.
If uniformity is one of the reasons why Polytrack is supposed to be the better mousetrap of American racing, horseplayers can only hope that track management does not purposefully decide to manipulate the surface.
Beyond Turfway Park, Woodbine in Canada is running main-track races now on an artificial surface tailored to its climate, and I confess to having no information to this point about what is occurring there. But, I do have some information and preliminary insights about the artificial surface that is going to be in play at Keeneland as well as some clues coming out of Hollywood Park, where its synthetic surface Cushion Track (which I call Hollytrack) already is in use for workouts.
Trainers of top horses have eagerly shipped into Keeneland because many jockeys and other trainers have been euphoric in their praise of the new surface and the new configuration of the track.
"It's easier on horses" is the commonly stated view.
The turns at Keeneland also are less severe now, which should lessen, if not eliminate, the notorious, inside speed-favoring tendency that has impacted so many races at this beautiful racing venue.
At Hollywood, horses and horseplayers may benefit equally from the installation of the cushioned Hollytrack. Not only are horses gaining some stamina while training over the apparently slower surface, but absentees and first-time starters have been performing very well when shipped to run at Santa Anita, where a glib dirt surface will remain at least through the 2006-2007 winter-spring meet.
Said professional clocker Bruno DeJulio: "Horses are able to show their usual speed early in their works, but they slow down quite a bit navigating the artificial surface in the stretch. This is going to help leg up a lot of horses that train here."