12/18/2007 1:00AM

Confusion at Santa Anita

EmailIn this wonderful season of cheer, it's surely unpleasant to play the horseplayer's Scrooge, but when Santa Anita opens its gifts on Dec. 26 with a renovated synthetic surface, the prospects for success in handicapping should be less encouraging than ever.

The adaptation to a circuit that now progresses from Cushion Track to Cushion Track to Polytrack to dirt to Cushion Track again has proved more troublesome than anticipated, and shippers to Southern California from Golden Gate Fields now will be exiting races on Tapeta.

Beyond the peculiarities of the newfangled surface-to-surface comparisons, Santa Anita now indulges an inexorable shift to cheaper stock, with a number of non-traditional conditions that can range from perplexing to indecipherable, such as starter allowance races for maiden-claiming $40,000 grads and lower that have never won two sprinting down the hillside turf course. Maiden juveniles turning 3 on Jan. 1, but babies still, and going long on the grass can be considered a recent staple. Claiming races at $25,000 but restricted to nonwinners of two lifetime may have no recorded history at Santa Anita, but they draw fields of 13 to 14 at Hollywood Park and will likely make an appearance in every condition book.

The new Cushion Track at Santa Anita should be anticipated as complicating for fundamentals that include speed handicapping, pace analysis, track profiles, and, notably, evaluating the 3-year-olds en route to the Kentucky Derby and other derbies. To appreciate the situation, examine the daily track variants for the final five racing days on Cushion Track during the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting.

Nov. 4fast 9fast 10
Nov. 3fast 5fast 10
Nov. 2fast 10fast 10
Nov. 1fast 6fast 10
Oct. 31fast 6fast 7

The average sprint variant was fast 6, the route variant was fast 9. In relation to the prior season's dirt times, the new averages suggested $10,000 claiming horses at Santa Anita should run 1:09.20 for six furlongs and 1:42.60 for the 1 1/16 miles. Stakes horses might be expected to run 1:07.00 for six furlongs and 1:39.80 for 1 1/16 miles. These are fanciful times and bear no resemblance to the running times during the summer at Del Mar, where the average sprint variant was closer to slow 9 and the average route variant was slow 15.

Comparisons between the times on Santa Anita's Cushion Track and Hollywood Park's Cushion Track will be far more compatible, provided the renovated surface at Santa Anita produces times similar to the original synthetic surface, a large presumption. Still, handicappers eyeballing the actual times on the various California tracks will be largely unable to render accurate comparisons. Figure analysts will be bedeviled like never before by the speed figures produced on the various scales by the extreme track variants, whether slow or fast.

That is, the Beyer Speed Figures will be less compatible than ever with the corresponding figures produced by BrisNet or by Quirin Speed & Pace or by The Sheets and Thoro-Graph. No matter the methods and proficiency of the experts, extreme variants deliver a substantial degree of noise. The ancient argument about which service provides the most accurate speed figures was never more than a matter of semantics, or the conceits of a marketing campaign, but now the distinctions will be annoyingly problematic for users.

Handicappers that rely upon accurate pace figures will confront even more serious problems of analysis. The jockeys were quickest to adapt to the synthetic surfaces, both to the slower surface at Del Mar and the tendency of the Cushion Track at Hollywood Park to weaken the cheaper speed horses, which means the majority of the speed horses. So the fractional times at the pace calls have proved slower than normal, not because the horses do not run as swiftly to the pace call on synthetic surfaces, but rather because the jockeys have grabbed hold and tempered the times.

As a result, even good horses may show unrepresentative below-par pace figures, a predicament that will make it more painstaking to determine which 3-year-olds rising in class can record faster pace figures even while recording stronger speed figures. The combination of the faster pace and faster speed figures while rising in class has traditionally been a glaring signal as to which 3-year-olds are authentically best, but the tell-tale analysis may suffer a kind of artificial shortcoming on the synthetic surfaces.

A practical remedy accepts 3-year-olds that have run superior speed figures in combination with pace figures no greater than two lengths below par. The tactic will be more reliable where the same 3-year-olds in the past have recorded superior pace figures in combination with superior speed figures. Still, several of the 3-year-olds will remain lightly raced and the superior pace figures may have been recorded at a significantly lower order of competition. As my colleague Barry Meadow has observed, it's sometimes a cheerless world.

With the downhill turf course at Santa Anita, the handicappers likely to prosper will be those who recognize the course as possibly the most severe horses-for-courses layout anywhere. When the great majority of the races on the course were programmed for experienced older runners, the situation could be readily exploited, and for generous profits when key horses were combined successfully in exactas and trifectas.

As long ago as 1995, a professional handicapping colleague advised me I would be eliminating few winners if I arbitrarily tossed any horse 4 years old and older that had no experience on the course or had never run impressively on it. My colleague was correct.

That was a nostalgic past, alas, and by now the number of races on the downhill course for lightly raced 3-year-olds and even maidens has increased terrifically. The experience factor obviously will be less dominant. Still, in the past two seasons, as many as a half-dozen downhill turf sprints for inexperienced horses featured one or maybe two horses in large fields that had won or run well on the layout. In each situation, the horse-for-course managed to win again.

When maidens go long on the turf, which is common now, handicappers should remember that trainers enter first starters in grass routes for one of two reasons, one positive and one negative. The negative reason is the horses have demonstrated no speed in their workouts. Maybe the slow horses will prefer the slower pace and faster finish of the turf routes, or so the trainers hope. The positive reason is obvious, that the horses appear well-bred for the grass. The Tomlinson ratings of Daily Racing Form suppose first and second starters having a pedigree rating of 280 can be accepted as having won their fair share. In my judgment, Tomlinson ratings of 320 and higher will be far more productive.

Among experienced maidens on the turf, the ability to run the final fractions in 12 seconds or faster remains the most reliable predictor. Maidens that have run slightly slowers final fractions in 12.20 seconds can be acceptable, but slower than that allows for too many losers. Keep in mind the turf courses at Del Mar and Hollywood Park are unusually fast. Maidens should have satisfied the 12-second standard at those tracks, and many of them will show final fractions under 12 seconds a furlong.

Restricted claiming races (NW2L) typically will be cluttered with horses devoid of early speed. That's because speed horses win far more than a fair share of all races, especially the sprints. Thus, the plays of choice should be horses having high early speed, notably lone front-runners. A particularly solid play in restricted claiming races will be horses having superior pace figures against better, even when the horses have faded badly in the classier races. Because of the softer pace figures on synthetic surfaces, however, the recommended play will be less visible to pace analysts.

The prospects for success at Santa Anita in 2008 need not be entirely grim. As ever, the pick-six and pick-four pools will be bulging, the payoffs frequently sweet. Santa Anita will offer the 10-cent superfecta and the fractional tickets are strongly recommended, notably for bettors that would prefer to avoid the punitive withholding taxes that take a bitter bite at $5,000 and greater. The $1 supers often will pay better than $5,000, but the 10-cent supers will not.

Pick-six bettors should appreciate that Santa Anita will provide an expensive 2008 sports car as a bonus to any ontrack player holding the only winning ticket. History shows it should happen once or twice.

Santa Anita also will offer a new bet, the Super High Five. The $1 wager will require handicappers to select the top five finishers in exact order in the day's final race, usually a low-level maiden-claiming procession having a bulky field of slow and slower runners. The size of the pools is hard to predict, but the wager features a carryover carrot, and the carryovers may occur regularly.

The renovated Cushion Track may have the not-unimaginable effect of normalizing the super-fast fractional and final times that persisted during Oak Tree, and that would be a marvelous development. Speed figures would be more accurate, pace figures would retain their traditional symmetry with the speed figures, track profiles should be more consistent, and the new 3-year-olds should be easier to evaluate on speed, pace, and class. Santa Anita is a very classy place that warrants the best of everything, certainly a superior track surface, and it could happen.