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While Northern horseplayers may swear that the sun actually does shine every so often during winter, they also know that it can be very cold, very wet or some nasty combination of the two.
Beyond past performance comparisons and tote board watching, extreme weather conditions can influence handicapping to a greater extent than most players really appreciate. A few examples:
When there is moisture in the air at sunny Del Mar in August, the synthetic Polytrack will play "normal" because the moisture will cool the wax polymers that bind the various artificial ingredients. Without that moisture, track officials know they must add measured amounts of water to keep the track from becoming significantly slower.
At Aqueduct, during the current meet being conducted on the inner winter track, anti-freezing agents are mixed in to prevent the track cushion from becoming horse racing's version of a rock-hard interstate highway.
At Turfway Park, which converted to Polytrack in the fall of 2005, the racing surface no longer gets sloppy or muddy as it used to on the frozen dirt track when temperatures rose above 40 degrees. Now, the vertical drainage system which is part of the synthetic track concept prevents genuine sloppy or muddy conditions. But it does not suppress important idiosyncrasies that impact handicapping decisions.
For one thing horses who stalk the pace at Turfway or rally from several lengths back do far better during the winter months than they ever did during Turfway's dirt track era. Moreover, Turfway's outer posts and outer running lanes frequently become dominant on the Poly at all distances.
These tendencies are not cast in stone. A superior, extremely fit front-runner or a near-the-pace type with an inside post can win at Turfway. But any realistic reading of track tendencies will demonstrate that off-the-pace and rally-wide types deserve preferences in most of the races. This pattern is so strong that it usually takes a major shift in weather conditions to alter it.
During the last two weeks in December and the first weekend of the new year, for instance, the vast majority of Turfway races conformed to the above pattern. Some of the payoffs could have paid for several months of action, or a luxury trip to a warm-weather track.
In the sixth race Dec. 31 at 1 1/16 miles, for just one dramatic example, Justapremonition, breaking from post 11 at 13-1, defeated First Action Hero, from post 10 at 20-1. The exacta paid $354.
Continuing through last Sunday, there were five more exactas involving just the two outside posts that clicked, including one that paid $187 and another at $354.60. These horses and others who won or finished second from outer post positions - including those involved in two-turn races - found no difficulty overcoming their wide trips, something that rarely occurs elsewhere.
One track where wide running lanes sometimes can be an advantage during any time of year is Philadelphia Park.
On Dec. 27, when the track was sealed after a forced cancellation during the Dec. 26 card, the last four races were won by speed horses on the rail, a logical development for a sealed dirt track. On Dec. 28, when the track was drying out, the rail still was fine, but so were all the other posts and running lanes. This was the first stage of a pattern that once was the norm for every dirt track in the country until track officials decided that it was no longer wise to let a dirt racing surface naturally go through its cycles from wet, to sloppy, to muddy, then good and finally back to fast. Apparently, track officials at Philadelphia Park are not so quick to force-feed changes in the way their track is going to play. Good for them.
On Jan. 1 and Jan. 2, after a two-day break, the track naturally cycled back to "normal" fast and only one winner each day rode the inside rail. All other winners and most of the second-place finishers - whether on or near the pace - stayed off the inside rail or rallied in the middle of the track. This is typical for Philadelphia Park in normal or relatively dry weather.
At Aqueduct the one-mile inner track historically goes through strong periods where the rail path is a golden highway, but there are many days when that tendency is overridden by the way the track maintenance team has groomed the track cushion.
The famous inside speed bias that is associated with the inner track also can disappear when periods of sunshine accompany temperatures in the mid 40s. The thaw tends to soften the golden rail and equalize track conditions, while extreme cold can bring it back to life in less than a day.
As previously stated, weather can play a dramatic role in the way handicappers must approach a race, especially in regions where the ground is impacted by shifts in the weather or special track maintenance. Moreover, winter often brings with it high winds, which by themselves can create or change a track bias.
A strong 15-25 mph wind blowing with horses running down the backstretch will help propel front-runners and allow them to conserve their energy reserves.
Wind in the face of horses running through the backstretch can have the opposite effect, in that it can hinder front-runners while they are doing their best work. The same wind, which would be going with horses running in the homestretch, can push them to go faster while they are in their best stride.
At every track I have ever played, trainers with proven success are worth following, especially those who annually set their stables up for specific seasons or race meets. The trainers who do well at winter meets are no exception.
At Aqueduct and Philadelphia Park, where many trainers ship horses from one track to the other, the most prolific trainers to watch during the winter are Gary Contessa, Anthony Dutrow, Kiaran McLaughlin, Bruce Levine, Scott Lake, Guadalupe Preciado, Steve Klesaris, John Servis, and David Jacobson.
All of these trainers have specialized winning angles that can be gleaned from drf.com's Formulator Web as well as stats included with Daily Racing Form past performances. At Turfway Park, the trainers who fit this bill include Michael Maker, Joe Woodard, Kim Hammond, David Pate, and William Connelly.
* In my e-mail fan poll mentioned in this space last week, the final tally was 84-82 in favor of Zenyatta over Rachel Alexandra. So as promised, I marked my Eclipse ballot for the undefeated Zenyatta on behalf of the fans who shared their preferences and passionate arguments on both sides.