07/17/2006 11:00PM

Averting disaster at Del Mar

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Once upon an opening day at Del Mar, during the miserable years, I dropped roughly a month's rent on a card I expected to plunder. For the next six weeks, I retreated to a grassy knoll on Mission Bay near the water at Pacific Beach, where throughout the afternoons I read novels and books of general interest. I returned to the quirky track - narrow and poorly banked turns, the abbreviated stretch run, the mystique of horses for courses, the shifting biases - for the Labor Day weekend, where I played selectively, and won almost enough money to break even for the meeting.

I assured everyone who bothered to ask where I had been that the six weeks would be remembered fondly, as one of my most prosperous Del Mar seasons.

Only a year prior to the summer of pleasurable reading, I had arrived at Del Mar loaded for bear, and brimming with the confidence generated by best-ever seasons at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. By closing day, I had lost $3,300 at the windows, not including the rent and expenses, which were heavy enough, although nowhere as severe as they are today. The old saw that the next best thing to winning at the races is losing at the races has never resonated well with me, and I had grown weary of losing money at Del Mar.

For 13 seasons, I abandoned Del Mar. When I returned in 1993, I arrived with a strategy that actually worked. Where once the Hollywood Park turf course had served as a graveyard for front-runners (1970's), in recent seasons Hollywood's grass had favored front-runners, but Del Mar's grass had favored the fastest finishers. The simple strategy tossed the horses that had won or nearly won on the front or by pressing the pace at Hollywood Park, in favor of the strongest off-pace latecomers at Del Mar.

Profits ran high enough, and had persisted, so it was altogether disturbing and disconcerting what happened on opening day last year, when Del Mar introduced its shining new turf course. In the fourth race, a first-level allowance turf mile, the winner ran the final quarter-mile in 21.80 seconds. No kidding! The winner was a closer, a French import, and 3-2 favorite, all right, but the final fraction was preposterously fast. I imagined the timer must have misfired, but that inclination proved wrong.

In the opening half of the Oceanside Stakes, the traditional turf mile for 3-year-olds which invariably is split into divisions, the winner, Becrux, dashed wire to wire at 13-1, and completed the final quarter-mile in 22.40 seconds. The second division went to another closer at 2-1, the final quarter-mile in 23.00 flat. The conventional trusty guideline that any horse capable of completing the final fraction of a turf route at today's class level or higher faster than 12 seconds a furlong is an authentic contender, was suddenly rendered useless.

After five days of watching this phenomenon, I again quit Del Mar. Following the season, I checked pace handicapping author Tom Brohamer's turf variants for the 41 days when grass routes had been carded. I was relieved I had stayed away. Brohamer's turf variants ranged from Fast 5 to Fast 17 in relation to what had been normal only a year before. The average turf variant for the new course was Fast 10. That has to be a record of sorts!

Later, during Oak Tree and again during Santa Anita throughout the 2006 winter season, this information proved extremely helpful, and to some degree it should prove helpful at Del Mar 2006. Many turf horses that performed on the Del Mar grass course last season will be back, a number of them off lengthy layoffs. The horseman's habit of reserving the horses that prefer Del Mar for these seven weeks will be as ever in force. When calculating the horses' late speed on the turf for their races during Del Mar 2005 (the six-furlong fraction subtracted from the final time, modified by lengths gained), the adjustment that works is Fast 5.

So if Becrux appears at Del Mar again, instead of accepting a final fraction of 22.40 in last season's Oceanside Stakes, adjust the final fraction to 23.40. A final fraction of 23.40 would be adjusted to 24.40 (five lengths slower), in that case converting an authentic contender at the level to a highly probable loser. It's a crucial adjustment for the upcoming season, and reliable.

Regarding turf horses arriving at Del Mar 2006 from performances at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and elsewhere, remain wary. Unless the Del Mar turf course plays as sensationally fast as it did last season, which is unlikely, the converse of the procedure - adjusting the recent final fractions by subtracting five lengths, such that 24.40 at Santa Anita would project to 23.40 at Del Mar - does not apply.

Alert figure analysts can adapt fairly quickly and effectively by compiling turf variants during opening week. If the Del Mar 2005 class pars are employed, and the course has matured at all, the 2006 turf variants should be slow to extra slow. In this unusual situation, in order to estimate variants, the 2005 class pars at Del Mar should be preferred to projected times based upon recent races at Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, and elsewhere.

Recreational handicappers who do not care to calculate daily turf variants best resolve to eyeball the fractional and final times, and make subjective comparisons to last season's turf times. Consult the complete results charts provided in Daily Racing Form's Del Mar 2006 Players' Guide. If the times look comparable, proceed by subtracting the five lengths from the final fractions of turf races run at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and elsewhere. The adjusted final fractions should be ballpark accurate, which should prove preferable to no adjustment at all.

On another less esoteric Del Mar front that provides consistent winners that often pay more than they should, in the same excellent players' guide, DRF's Southern California handicapper, Brad Free, reported on the prevalence last season of layoff winners (45 days away) first and second back. Of the 371 races at Del Mar 2005, more than half (192) were won by layoff types.

Descriptive statistics can be misleading, and in the racing arenas normally will be greatly misleading, as when handicappers report that the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders' Cup Classic for the past 10 years has been won seven times by horses that have run within the past five weeks. The performance and pattern data routinely reported on the Breeders' Cup outcomes have been particularly misguided.

The percentage of winners having a characteristic should be divided by the percentage of starters having the same characteristic, resulting in what Bill Quirin long ago called an impact value (I.V.) - the higher the impact value the better. To be sure, Free did not do as much. But the statistic Free reported on layoff winners at Del Mar passes muster on a casual inspection, as the impact value of a type that have won as many as half the races should be 2.0 at least, and significant.

Best of all should be a subset of layoff types that frequently win, and win powerfully. Talented non-claiming 3-year-olds of winter and early spring that have been sidelined by mild maladies until midsummer normally return like roaring tigers. The colts especially will be young, relatively sound, rampantly improving, and raring to run. Stevie Wonderboy would be the all-too-obvious example.

The youngsters spring from the gates and deliver performances that will be lengths better than what they were capable of exhibiting only months ago. With the money down, it's a wonderful sight to behold. The more talented the youngsters, of course, the better, and when entered in the nonwinners allowance series they should be expected to dominate.

The pattern does not extend to the 3-year-old claiming horses. Most will be slow and inconsistent, such that recent-action types may not repeat their latest performances, and layoff types may run faster or slower than they did during winter and spring. Until October, the best plays in any 3-year-old claiming race of Southern California are the allowance dropdowns, provided the horses have exhibited at least traces of ability in the allowance races, such as early speed, a midrace move, an even effort that beats half the field, or a competitive speed figure that fits today's claiming par.

At any time of the year, if claiming 3-year-olds must be backed, the better choices will be horses clearly on the improve and moving ahead in class, by multiple levels perhaps, as opposed to those dropping from a higher class level following a nondescript effort.

Another unfamiliar guidepost in claiming races at Del Mar regards the 4-year-olds, notably those that were competing in claiming races against their peers at Santa Anita. Those races were carded throughout the Santa Anita season, and the majority looked ugly. At Del Mar, the 4-year-olds will be forced to run against the 5-year-olds and older they avoided at Santa Anita. If these 4-year-olds have run well against older claiming horses during Hollywood Park, accept them. If not, mark them down unmercifully at Del Mar.

Although it has not repeated itself for several seasons now, opening week at Del Mar occasionally has featured an outside closer's bias on the main track. Like most handicappers, my tortured history with biases entails their recognition too late to do anything smart about it, but Del Mar's outside closer's bias can be difficult to miss. Normally now the biases at Del Mar have been shifting, a day-to-day phenomenon. The remedy is to construct track profiles, notably for races at seven furlongs, a flat mile, and on the turf. If unlikely speed horses can be found flying wire to wire on a Wednesday, however, it's odds-on the bias will have disappeared by Thursday.

Finally, a variation of the horses-to-watch lists I have always relished is the horses-to-beat list. My current list for Del Mar is limited to one horse, but what a horse! As tremendous as he has remained for two seasons now, on turf as well as dirt, no less, Lava Man should be expected to lose the Grade 1 Pacific Classic as everyone's odds-on favorite. Following a sluggish pace, Lava Man's speed figure in the Hollywood Gold Cup returned at three lengths below par. With the Quirin-style par at 114, Brohamer's speed and pace figures returned at a discouraging 108-110, a slow-slow performance.

The local champ's all-out effort that day may have been extremely game, but it was not as good as it looked, and in another half-stride Lava Man would have been beaten by a horse he badly outclasses. If handicappers can form an opinion against Lava Man in the Pacific Classic, they should prepare themselves to proceed aggressively in the several surrounding pools.

If they are right, the Pacific Classic may key their best afternoon of the summer season. What at quirky Del Mar could be more appropriate than that?