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A bias only on Friday nights
Hollywood Park, now in the midst of its annual spring-summer racing season, is an intriguing track for many reasons. For one thing, its main track was reconfigured into a 1 1/8-mile oval - the largest in California - in 1984. Although the enlarged dimensions did not impact the stretch run, which is only 991 feet, it increased the run from the finish line to the first turn to 600 feet, which provides a comfortable run for nine-furlong races, compared with the shorter run to the first turn for the standard 1 1/16-mile route races offered at Santa Anita Park and Del Mar, both one-mile ovals.
Hollywood, of course, was among the three Southern California tracks that had to replace their main dirt tracks with synthetic surfaces, by order of the California Horse Racing Board. But it is the only synthetic track that has not gone through radical changes.
The background story has been told often: The switch to synthetics, ostensibly to improve safety for horses and jockeys, was also supposed to create more uniform track conditions that would be impervious to rain, or shifts in weather.
Of course, we all saw how wrong that was when Del Mar's version of the British-made Polytrack played like the slowest racing surface in America during 2007 and then played several seconds faster in 2008 through periodic water dousing. Apparently synthetic tracks can be quite sensitive to temperature changes and to the relative humidity in the air.
We also saw another British-made synthetic - Cushion Track - fail to drain properly at Santa Anita during the winter rains of January and February 2008 before it had to be replaced by the Australian-made Pro-Ride. Meanwhile, Hollywood's version of Cushion Track has been more stable during its relatively dry summer and fall meets, while apparently needing extra doses of sand to keep it that way.
Yet, despite Hollywood's relative stability and still inconclusive evidence about the effects of synthetic tracks on horse safety, there have been noticeable differences in the way this synthetic track has played compared with the old dirt surface and to other synthetics in California and elsewhere.
Gone is the dead inside rail path that was a staple handicapping factor - especially in sprints - when Hollywood's main track was comprised of sand, dirt, and organic silt. On the Cushion Track there is no dead rail at Hollywood Park.
It also is true that with one major exception, the Hollywood Cushion Track rarely favors any specific running style, or cluster of post positions. The exception is not automatic, but is worth noting and seems to expose the track's apparent sensitivity to temperature variations:
On Hollywood's Friday evening racing cards throughout the meet, the naturally cooler temperatures that occur at and beyond sunset, apparently tighten up the the wax polymers that are important binding ingredients in any synthetic track mixture. This tightening seems inclined to set up a faster racing surface favorable to early speed types. In fact, early evidence of this phenomenon was seen during the fall 2008 meet, which occurred during predictably relatively cooler California weather. In fact, as DRF columnist Brad Free first reported during the early phases of that meet, front-running horses and near-the pace types won a greater percentage of races at all distances than they did during the warm weather meets at Hollywood and Del Mar.
In his important Nov. 7 DRF column, Free gave horseplayers ample reason to narrow the contention down quite a bit, observing that front-runners and pace pressers won 16 of the first 20 races run at six or 6 1/2 furlongs, while also winning 8 of the first 10 Hollywood Park fall races at 1 1/16 miles around two turns. Combined, that added up to 24 of 30 Hollywood main-track races at the most popular distances won by horses racing on or within three lengths of the lead, a potent 80 percent ratio. Moreover, 11 of those 30 races were won wire to wire, for a relatively high 36 percent win rate.
Comparing these short-term statistics provided a stark contrast to stats I complied for the relatively short Oak Tree meet that are included in a chapter on "Synthetic Track Handicapping" in my forthcoming DRF Press book, Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st Century.
At six furlongs and beyond at Oak Tree, off-the-pace runners - those who rallied from more than three lengths behind the leader - won 60 of the 158 races on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride, a 38 percent win rate that nearly doubled the one seen at Hollywood. Moreover, only 15 percent of the Oak Tree-at-Santa Anita races were won by wire-to-wire front-runners, considerably less than half the win ratio for such horses at Hollywood.
During the current spring meet which began in late April and now is broaching the first days of summer, the Friday night speed bias has occurred more often than not. As observed, I would suggest that players should be prepared to make handicapping adjustments to reflect this fact, while using the info below to properly evaluate horse performances.
Friday, April 24, prevailing temperatures were in the low 50s and most of the main track winners were on or near the lead. (No night racing on Friday, May 1.)
* Friday, May 8, temperatures ranged in the mid to low 60s, still cool for Southern California and the main track played relatively fair, with a slight tilt towards early speed. The next day - Saturday, May 9 - the temperatures barely hit 70 degrees, much cooler than usual for an afternoon in this region and early speed was the dominating running style.
* Wednesday, May 13, on a cloudy day with temperatures ranging in the 60s, there was a decided bias favorable to early speed.
* Friday, May 15, despite temperatures dipping below 63, there was no apparent track bias. The only explanation I could come up with for this variation on the pattern, was the relatively high humidity that accompanied the lower temperatures. Some track maintenance might also have played a role, which has been an issue at Hollywood, where sand periodically has been added to the track without specific, pre-race, public notice.
* As temperatures continued to stabilize in the mid 60s through the rest of May, Hollywood's main track played fair to all running styles, except on Friday, May 22 and Monday, May 25, when a moderate speed bias impacted the Cushion Track.
* Friday, June 5, as temperatures barely reached 60 degrees and the speed bias returned for a single day during the first week of June racing.
* During the most recent week, ending June 14, there was no noticeable bias on any day or evening on the main track, although deep closers and midpack stretch runners fared much better than usual. Again, the mere fact that Hollywood tends to add or remove sand from time to time could be the reason for this, but until track officials provide accurate, detailed information about such changes for every racing day, horseplayers will have to watch the way races are run to form reasonable conclusions.
To be sure, any unexpected shift in bias may complicate your handicapping for today's races, but your observations should help you evaluate races already run when today's horses return to action either here or at Del Mar in July and August.
No one said this game is easy, and as most horseplayers can attest, the introduction of synthetic tracks to the handicapping equation has changed the game and forced players to pay closer attention to almost everything.
Added turf course note: As usual for this point in the Hollywood meet, the infield grass course is beginning to show signs of wear and tear. While stretch runners still will deserve an edge in most grass races - as they do at the vast majority of tracks - front-running types won several turf races and regularly outran their odds during the first two weeks in June.