10/01/2008 12:00AM

Back to the Polytrack


Keeneland's shift from a dirt main track to a Polytrack synthetic in fall 2006 did more than introduce a new racing surface to a high-class race meet. It created a seismic shift in handicapping that left many players in the dust.

The old dirt track played for many years as if a conveyor belt for front-runners was built along the inside rail path. The new synthetic track played as if traffic tickets were to be issued to any horse who took the lead and tried to go wire to wire.

In race after race, horses on or near the lead were swallowed up in the stretch by horses who lagged behind and/or were kept out of the early mix. Saving ground was okay, but swinging four and five wide for a late rally was so much better.

Keeneland's jockeys contributed to this upside-down pattern on the Polytrack. Virtually all of them saw the way speed was dying. To avoid falling victim to this new and seemingly powerful track bias, Keeneland's jockeys exacerbated the trend by restraining their mounts as much as possible.

This calculated tactic helped muddy the waters for players hoping to get a handle on how Polytrack was influencing results. The confusion only intensified during the 2007 Keeneland spring meet, when the 2006 trend toward stretch-running winners increased significantly.

Track management insisted there was no real bias and that it was too early to make clear judgments about the way the track was playing. While this contention was difficult to disprove, Keeneland officials actually had no idea how their new synthetic track was playing. Moreover, they were in no position to argue that the repeated failures by front-running types were just a coincidence or because of the way jockeys adjusted their riding styles. The same was true at the eight other synthetic surfaces that replaced dirt tracks in America during the past three years. At each track - especially Keeneland - horseplayers had no choice but to adjust their handicapping to reflect the simple fact that stretch-runners were winning so much more often than on dirt. That said, changes in the way all of these tracks performed were certain to occur after an initial break-in period. Some of these changes were to be a direct result of discoveries made by track superintendents. Some knew that excessively warm weather caused the wax in these synthetic tracks to melt, which in turn resulted in slower races in which form fluctuated wildly.

Others saw that heavy rains placed a burden on the synthetic track's unique drainage system, while everyone concerned tried to learn how to keep these tracks as consistent as possible during extremely cold or hot weather. But that is a larger discussion, dealt with nicely on a track-by-track basis in Bill Finley's new DRF Press book, "Betting Synthetic Surfaces", which I recommend as an excellent primer on handicapping in the synthetic-track era. For now, with the fall 2008 Keeneland meet opening this week, it probably would pay just to spell out some specific tendencies that have evolved during the previous Keeneland race meets.

First, Keeneland's fall meet occurs in cooler weather than the warm spring session. There is unpredictable rain, however, and the temperature can vary wildly from the low 40s to low 70s. Because lower temperatures and/or moderate moisture can tighten the Polytrack, this can lead to faster-than-usual fractional splits and a moderate muting of the pronounced stretch-running bias we saw during the Keeneland fall meets in 2006 and 2007, when no one knew what to expect and track officials were just beginning to appreciate the impact of weather shifts on the new surface.

At the initial Keeneland-Polytrack fall meet, approximately two out of every three races at all distances were won by horses who came from well off the pace, while only about one out of every 10 races was won on the lead. In the 2007 fall meet, some adjustments in track maintenance and some additional adjustments by various jockeys led to some muting of the strong anti-speed bias that had dominated the first few Polytrack meets at Keeneland. With little warning or cogent explanations by track management, the percentage of winning front-runners almost doubled at all distances, while curiously not affecting the percentage of stretch-running winners in most cases.

The exception was in Keeneland's route races, where deep closers won nearly four out of every five races, a remarkably potent trend that suggests that money can be made this fall in race and pace scenarios that conform to the following:

* Keeneland Polytrack route races in which there are prospects for a strength-sapping speed duel and at least one qualified deep closer with reasonable credentials for the class and distance.

* A race in which the betting favorites clearly lack stamina for the distance.

These aspects of synthetic-track handicapping are beginning to resemble potential common denominators that may reach across all the different variations of synthetic-track racing. At least my personal research into this fascinating subject suggests that horses turning back in distance, horses bred to handle distances beyond short sprints, and some who were bred to be turf horses at one mile or longer seem to have license to handle synthetic tracks or may improve sharply when trying them for the first and/or second time.

This implies, of course, that some horses trained or bred for stamina may be predisposed to handle synthetic tracks better than dirt and/or turf. It also may be true that specific horses may be best bred to handle synthetic surfaces, just as some are bred to specialize on grass and/or wet tracks.

With that in mind, I intend to give extra credit at Keeneland to horses who have had success on Polytrack and perhaps other synthetic surfaces. Likewise, I will keep an eye out for horses turning back in distance and for young horses and lightly raced types who come from sires who already have had more than a few synthetic-track winners during the few brief seasons we have been dealing with this new world.

Here are 19 of those sires to keep in mind. Most, you will notice, also are considered potent sires of turf horses and distance types.

Giant's Causeway, A.P. Indy, El Corredor, Tiznow, Stormy Atlantic, Tale of the Cat, Slew City Slew, Awesome Again, Smart Strike, Distorted Humor, In Excess, Street Cry, Kingmambo, Point Given, Langfuhr, Lemon Drop Kid, Stephen Got Even, Benchmark, and Tribal Rule.