07/16/2008 11:00PM

Del Mar Poly passes first test


DEL MAR, Calif. - By now it is fairly well established that the opening-day program at Del Mar has about the same relationship to horse racing as Mardi Gras has to Lent.

Both celebrations encourage a ceremonial worship of excess before getting back to the more mundane concerns of life. In the case of Del Mar, these concerns include survival in an economy that is beginning to dent even such formerly bullet-proof diversions as parimutuel Thoroughbred racing.

"The stock market was up over 200 points," noted race caller Trevor Denman, an hour before first post. "Maybe I should announce that."

Not that it would have mattered. On opening day at Del Mar, even the horses are a sideshow. Of significantly more importance to the lion's share of the 43,000 people there on Wednesday were the cherished traditions of wearing extravagant hats, the steady consumption of festive beverages, and the public displays of flesh - both real and engineered.

As with most tribal customs, such behaviors have their practical roots, especially on a warm day by the Southern California seacoast. The use of protective headgear - even one depicting the chariot race from "Ben Hur" in papier mache - serves to fend off the most damaging rays of the sun. It is generally accepted that warm temperatures dictate less clothing (although the fellow in the official Del Mar thong took it too far). And everyone knows that it is important to hydrate in the heat, even if the only handy liquid is a Del Margarita.

Still, half an hour in line for access to a ladies' room, a $2 show bet, or a fish taco is asking a lot, pushing the limits of customer patience while begging the question, "Should fish really be involved with tacos?"

Most of the 43,000 won't be back until next year on opening day, so who cares? By then, any inconvenience with parking, seating, standing, eating, drinking, or simply breathing in the upscale Ellis Island of the clubhouse and Turf Club will be long forgotten.

If the uninitiated among the crowd only could have appreciated the anxieties of Del Mar's top executives as they gathered near the finish line for the first race Wednesday. Never has a field of $10,000 claimers carried so much weight.

The off-season fussing with the Polytrack racing surface resulted in the very same roll of the dice as the original installation last year. No one knew how it would turn out.

Cosmetically, the surface had lost its washed-out glare, rendered a softer, more neutral hue by a year's worth of environmental contamination that included a generous dusting of ash from last fall's mega-fires. Still, it was all about the clockings. Last year they bordered on the absurdly slow, which is why executive vice president Craig Fravel crossed all 10 fingers and thumbs, and why track chief Joe Harper removed himself several yards up the stretch before the first so that he could wretch in private if things went wrong.

In a sick twist of bad luck, the timing system misfired and displayed a final clocking of 1:46 and change as the horses crossed under the wire. Fravel, who knew for a fact that the race was a mile, found himself wondering if it was really 1 1/16 miles, and therefore not so bad for this level. As it turned out, there was a new hand at the timer switch. In short order, the correct clocking of 1:37.63 was posted, more in line with the reality of what is expected from the modern breed.

"As long as they come back okay," Fravel insisted.

Maintenance of Del Mar's Polytrack will be dictated by surface temperature, which last season topped 130 degrees on the warmest days. Water will be amply applied to keep the track from going soft in the afternoon. Let's say, then, for the sake of argument, that Del Mar's team has figured out their synthetic puzzle, and that the summer will proceed with fewer headlines about surfaces. At this point, the menu of California busiest Thoroughbred racing surfaces now reads:

Del Mar's tightened, re-waxed, and watered Polytrack.

Hollywood Park's Cushion Track, with a thorough post-season reconditioning in progress.

Bay Meadows's old-fashioned sand and loam, with plastic "stabilizers" added and only one short fair meet left to run.

Golden Gate Fields's Tapeta.

Santa Anita's limbo, where failed Cushion Track is being replaced by polymer-coated ProRide.

This begs the question, "Never mind about the fish tacos - why has California racing turned itself into the field trials of racing surface technology, and how will it all turn out?"

It will be the jockeys, the trainers, and their veterinarians who pass final judgment on the Del Mar surface, along with unsolicited advice from handicappers across the nation. In the meantime, management must be content with the endorsement of Jon DeVore, one of the members of the Red Bull Air Force Sky Dive Team. After jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, DeVore and his teammates glided safely to earth near the main track finish line once the horses had cleared the track for the first.

Asked how the new surface felt, DeVore replied, "It was great. You don't even need a parachute."

Kind words, but he was obviously jacked up on Red Bull at the time.