12/29/2006 12:00AM

Assessing track bias post-Katrina

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - How does the rebuilt dirt surface at Fair Grounds compare with the pre-Katrina version?

Research from my book, "The Power of Early Speed," showed that the old main track at Fair Grounds gave horses who led at the first call a significant advantage. At distances of five and 5 1/2 furlongs combined, the first-call leader won more than 32 percent of the races, while returning more than $3.17 for each $2 wagered. The win rate declined in six-furlong races, but was still strong at 26 percent, with a $2.68 profit.

Unlike the trend at some tracks, the success of horses with early speed increased as the distances of the route races increased. Races at one mile produced a solid but unspectacular 20 percent wins, with a $2.55 return on investment. Those numbers improved at all other route distances on the old dirt surface, and averaged out to 26 percent. The average ROI was about $2.60 at route distances.

Since there wasn't much of a difference between sprints and routes pre-Katrina, I combined them for the sake of getting a larger sample size on the new dirt surface.

This meet, from a sample of 65 races, all in December, there have been 15 front-running winners. That is a 23 percent rate of success, which is just a little lower than what we saw from the old surface.

A high percentage of the races not won by the early leader were won by horses who tracked the leader from second and third. There were a total of 33 winners who were among the first three to the first call, slightly better than 50 percent. As things stand, it does not pay to support runners who rally from very far off the pace.

There were 1,419 grass races run on the pre-Katrina turf course that were included in the data in my book. Horses with early speed won 19 percent of the turf races at distances of less than a mile. That dropped to 17 percent at a mile, and then declined to 11 percent in turf route races at longer distances.

The sample of turf races I checked from December at the current meet was very small at 12 races, so I won't promise that those results will be significant over the long run, but they are still interesting. For the record, there were three winning first-call leaders, a solid 25 percent. However, there was only one other winner among the first three to the first call. He rallied from third. Although it is tempting to guess that most of the other winners were closers from the rear half of the pack, that wasn't the case. Eight of the 12 winners came from the front half of the pack.

Based on those recent results, when I handicap turf races at Fair Grounds I will give the edge to horses who can rate off the pace and who also have enough tactical speed to be located in the front half of the field during the early going.

On the home front here in Kentucky, Turfway's Polytrack doesn't match the favorable statistics for early speed typically found on the dirt, but at least it comes closer to doing so than Keeneland's Polytrack did. A group of 76 races run in December at Turfway shows a shade less than 24 percent wins by first-call leaders, which isn't much worse than the 28 percent win rate for front-runners found in the 201,237 dirt races examined in my book. The 47 percent win rate for runners who were among the first three to the first call at Turfway is strong, although it falls short of the 60 percent success rate of the first three at first call usually seen in dirt races.

Turfway's Polytrack is formulated to withstand different weather conditions than the one at Keeneland. But it is still encouraging to see that the Polytrack surface at Turfway is capable of coming within a reasonable range of matching the dirt traits handicappers are comfortable with, which have been in place for decades.

It would be great to see Keeneland's Polytrack tweaked enough to come closer to matching the traditional pace characteristics of dirt tracks, while maintaining the much-improved safety record of the artificial surface.