07/07/2008 12:00AM

At Del Mar, it's all about the track


When trainer John Shirreffs was asked if his undefeated 4-year-old filly Zenyatta would run at Del Mar, he said: "It depends upon the track and what they've done with it. That's where she's going. She's shipping to Del Mar."

So, as Shirreffs clearly stated, Zenyatta will run at Del Mar if last year's problems with Del Mar's synthetic racing surface have been solved for 2008, an issue equally important to serious horseplayers and many other trainers.

As most may remember, Del Mar's Polytrack racing surface was a two-headed monster in 2007. In the morning hours, while clouds rolled in from the Pacific Ocean, the new racing surface retained some of that moisture and helped set up a glib surface that also provided the desired safety factor intended by the installation of synthetic surfaces at several California tracks.

In the afternoon, however, Del Mar's synthetic surface baked in the summer sun and lost its resilience, setting up one of the slowest main tracks in modern American racing history.

The change was so dramatic that some stables - most notably the Zayat horses trained by Bob Baffert - were shipped to Saratoga and eventually turned over to Eastern-based trainers. Shirreffs for his part, also felt that some of his best horses were hindered by the ultra-dry track, so much so that he will watch the way the track plays before deciding if he will run Vanity Stakes winner Zenyatta in the Grade 2, $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch on Aug. 2.

Horseplayers who played the 2007 Del Mar season are equally concerned and hopeful that Del Mar's corrective measures will stabilize the track.

As previously reported, Del Mar officials intend to water the track on most days to rectify the situation. While there has been no formal disclosure of how much and how often the track will be watered, this is going to be an important issue to everyone involved in the Del Mar game.

Last year, form was difficult to decipher throughout the meet. Moreover, the value of a fast workout or two over the track was no proof of fitness or of possible improvement. In fact, horses with racing experience had a decided advantage over first-timers in all but a few maiden races. Yet, it was not clear if previous good form on other synthetic tracks offered any value, although Student Council did win the 2007 Pacific Classic after showing a preference for Polytrack in Kentucky. Fact is, a logical playing strategy at Del Mar last summer was to avoid most main-track races, accenting instead the abundant opportunities presented by the richly endowed turf program.

The Del Mar turf course, by the way, traditionally plays to stalkers and solid speed types more than deep closers, especially after the course wears down a bit following the first two weeks of use.

On the Polytrack, one strong winning angle that did pay dividends in 2007 was to downplay form comparisons per se and prefer horses from barns that came out firing on the first few days of the meet.

Trainer Peter Miller, for example, showed that he was ready for the stamina demands of the Del Mar surface by scoring with three winners in the first few days. Miller inevitably tailed off late in the session, but was a most productive trainer for more than a month with a barn of ultra-fit performers, even those with questionable past performances. By contrast, it took veteran Bruce Headley almost a month to win a race at Del Mar, even though his horses often seemed well placed.

It also was useful to prefer horses that had debuted at Hollywood and were in the hands of trainers with strong second-out stats - Brian Koriner, for example. Last but not least, the turn-back angle - effective at all tracks - had extra potency at Del Mar given the noted stamina demands of the Polytrack.

Because Del Mar is a boutique meet that some trainers clearly point towards with all their skills, such trends should be respected this summer even if the surface proves to be somewhat faster and not quite as demanding as last year.

Another useful handicapping tool to consider is one that relates to the extensive program of maiden races for 2-year-olds.

Suggestion: Go to the Del Mar web site (www.dmtc.com) and download the nominees to the two premier 2-year-old stakes - the Del Mar Futurity and Del Mar Debutante. While both of these races will be run very late in the meet, there are many highly regarded maidens already nominated for those races likely to be involved in the maiden-race program at 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 furlongs. There is gold in these lists. Winners can be gleaned by combining stakes nominees with trainers who are doing well at the meet and/or by giving an edge to horses that have had a debut race, or a series of long, strong workouts at Hollywood.

Beyond these nuggets, the most compelling handicapping notion to bring to Del Mar is the need to be as open minded as possible.

Build a notebook based on trends that actually occur - be it the way the track actually plays, or whatever information is provided to the public about the watering schedule. Keep a record of dramatic changes in track conditions that occur on cooler, overcast days, or during the Friday programs that extend into the evening, and give extra credit to trainers and jockeys who seem to have the best feel of the track.

Beyond the mysteries of handicapping, Del Mar always presents an exceedingly attractive stakes schedule from the July 16 opening-day Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-olds on the turf, a race so popular that it usually splits into two divisions, to the closing-day feature of the Del Mar Futurity, on Sept. 3.

In all there will be 42 published stakes and several other overnight events, including seven Grade 1's and a dozen other graded events, most notably the Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 24.

The jockey colony also figures to be stronger than recent years with Eclipse Award winner Garrett Gomez committing to Del Mar instead of Saratoga this summer. Gomez will be joined by the outstanding Rafael Bejarano and the vastly improved Joel Rosario, along with many of the riders who dominated the Del Mar standings last year.