07/10/2008 12:00AM

Different track, same old basics: Class and speed figures are still key


July is no time for handicappers or horsemen to get comfortable. Or have you forgotten what happened one year ago at Del Mar?

Last summer at Del Mar, the brand-new Polytrack racing surface was a joy for horses during the cool morning training hours. The surface was quick, kind, and safe. Horses and trainers both loved it.

Then the sun came out, and by first post at 2 p.m. everything had changed. The synthetic material got hot, and the surface turned deep and tiring. Final times were slower than par by three or more seconds depending on distance, and a new style of racing emerged.

"You felt like you were going in slow motion," jockey Tyler Baze recalled. "And it was weird. If you were on the lead, most of the time you had no shot."

Yep, CaliforniaOs grand synthetic-surface experiment hit a great big speed bump last summer.

But the underlying reason why people wager on horses stayed constant. The game still contained an element of predictability, if handicappers knew what to look for beyond the most important factors of condition, class, speed, and pace.

Speed, the very essence of Thoroughbred racing, became less important, and it was nearly impossible to "steal" a race on the front end. But horseplayers proved to be resilient. "Slow" did not mean chaotic, and form held up. It just took horses a lot longer than usual to reach the finish; the average winning time for six furlongs was a laborious 1:12.90. Nonetheless, favorites won at a 32 percent clip, just slightly off the historical norm. The favoritesO win rate was the same for main-track routes as it was for main-track sprints.

Yes, the racing stayed relatively predictable - well-conditioned horses at sensible class levels continued to win most races. It was the same as before. And handicappers able to apply the handicapping fundamentals in conjunction with the nuances of a modern surface found the parimutuel battle no more problematic than previous seasons, on dirt.

On the slower Polytrack surface, conditioning was crucial and cheap speed had virtually no shot. But class analysis stayed important, and will be again this summer. A horse that "figures" on class will recently have been competitive at the level, or recently earned a speed figure close to par for a higher level. But pace analysis, that was the tricky one. Last summer, early speed was not an attribute; many front-runners struggled.

Now it is 2008, the Polytrack surface is a year old, and jockey Joe Talamo offers simple handicapping counsel.

"If the track is the same as last year, I would say donOt play speed horses," he advised. "That track was exhausting. It was weird. In the morning, you could work [fast]. But the afternoon, well, IOve never gone 24, 48 for three-quarters."

The recommendation to avoid front-runners might make sense, except for one thing. The 2008 main track will not be same as 2007. Count on it. Everyone else is.

"The difficult part for a lot of horsemen is it was a different racetrack in the afternoon than it was in the morning," said Tom Robbins, the Del Mar racing secretary. This year, he said, Del Mar hopes to achieve daylong consistency, while holding to the main objective.

"What can we do this year so we donOt sacrifice safety?" Robbins said.

The handicapping challenge of predicting performance on another unique surface is the dominant theme for horseplayers heading into the most competitive and anticipated meet of the year in California. Bettors expecting the track to play as slow and tiring as last year might be surprised.

The reason is water. Last summer, on the advice of Polytrack manufacturers, Del Mar did not add any water to the surface.

"Not a drop," Robbins said.

The hands-off policy was not an issue during cool mornings, after night temperatures and moist ocean air helped to create a surface that was both safe and quick.

"In the morning, it was great," trainer Mike Mitchell said. "I donOt think there was a horseman that didnOt like it in the morning. But the afternoon, it was just different."

Training ended by 10; first post is 2 p.m. Four hours to bake.

"The sun came out, the track dried out, and nobody liked it," Mitchell said. "What they have to do is water the son-of-a-gun. If they water it, I think itOll be great. ItOll be fair to everybody - fair to speed horses, fair to horses coming from out of it. The handicappers should like it a lot more."

Trainers and jockeys certainly will. Richard Migliore rode Midwest shipper Student Council to victory in the $1 million Pacific Classic, and called the surface "frustrating." Migliore breezes many horses that he rides, and is a keen judge of ability based on workouts. But the track changed so much last summer, evaluation was difficult.

"You work a horse in the morning, and have gears, and you know this horse will win," Migliore said. "ItOs a different track in the afternoon, and they are running along nicely and they just hit a wall. So itOs frustrating that horses that I felt like really would win, they wouldnOt just get beat, but get beat 10 to 15 lengths."

Jockeys altered strategy by necessity. On the slow surface, horses needed to conserve energy early in races.

"Anytime you have to ride to the racetrackOs qualities as opposed to your horseOs qualities [is not good]," Migliore said. "I really like Hollywood Park, because you can ride your horse, you donOt ride the track. If youOre a speed horse, youOre not trying to take his speed away because the track dictates it. If youOre a closer, you can sit, and you can get there. YouOre not trying to work your way to the outside when your whole life youOve learned to work your way to the inside."

The change in conditions from morning to afternoon left riders in a bad spot, Talamo explained.

"When you rate a speed horse, thatOs what gets them beat," he said. "So at Del Mar, do I grab them or not? It was a mind-trick game. I think with water on it, itOs going to tighten it up."

Migliore reiterated every horsemanOs wish: "I sure hope they get it where itOs the same track at 4 p.m. as it is at 6 a.m."

Del Mar officials hope for the same thing.

"Water will improve this from the standpoint that it will cool the material down a little bit, and [bind] the material together . . . without sacrificing the resiliency of the track," said Robbins. "What we saw last year from a safety standpoint was so much of an improvement from years past. We went 39 days without a catastrophic injury. . . . You didnOt want to do anything different."

With a single-season improved-safety record in the books, Del Mar will change, though the watering schedule has not been finalized and will fluctuate even as the meet begins.

"Are we going to water between races? Or right after training? That remains to be seen," Robbins said two weeks before opening day. "Water is the unknown variable - how much we put down, and how much we can put down."

Beyond watering, other changes will affect the surface. Del Mar applied new, softer wax to the surface in February. Officials believe the new wax, and regular watering schedule, will help the surface maintain consistency from the morning to the afternoon.

Further, there may be more extensive renovation on Tuesdays, a dark day. The surface will be harrowed and material could be added. Theoretically, races on the first day of the Wednesday-through-Monday racing week could be slower and less conducive to speed than when the track tightens later in the week.

What it means is the 2008 racetrack is likely to be quicker. And if so, early speed might be less of a liability around two turns. The pace characteristics of winners could be significantly altered.

A "new" surface would change everything, which might be good, because last summer around two turns, front-runners were up against it. No horse the entire meet led at every call in a main-track race at 1 1/16 miles or more. It was an 0-for-25 mark for the pacesetter. At one mile, only 7 of the 48 races were won by the pacesetter.

Overall, the track produced a 7-for-73 mark (10 percent) for two-turn pacesetters. As a point of comparison, during the Hollywood Park spring-summer meet, 15 percent of main-track routes were won by a horse that led at every call.

In main-track sprints last year, speed was neither a liability nor an advantage. And except for a handful of days, there was little distinction between the inside and outside lanes. Most of the time, the best horse won. While the deeper surface generated unusually slow times, speed figures provide a remedy. Beyer Figures incorporate the "speed" (track variant) of the surface into the number. Horses did not always run to their workouts, but they ran to their figures. And the horse-for-course angle proved as reliable as always.

During the final four weeks, 21 of the 81 races for winners on the main track were won by horses that already had won at the meet; only nine were favored. Think about it - one in four main-track races was won by a horse that already had won over the surface. Rush With Thunder won all four of his starts; Flip the Penny won a maiden race opening weekend in her ninth start, and proceeded to also win her next two starts.

Due to the invigorating seaside atmosphere or perhaps simply because of the season, Del Mar always has been a horse-for-course racetrack. Last summer was no different: 20 horses won two or more races on the main track. It is a point to remember - when a horse races once at Del Mar, that performance supersedes everything in the horseOs history.

So how fast will they run?

"ThatOs a tough one to answer," Robbins said. "Last year the Bing Crosby was 1:11.06; if we can get it to 1:09-and-two, and still have good, competitive, safe racing, I think we will be thrilled. If we [shave] two and a half or three seconds off the two-turn races, weOd be thrilled."

The Grade 1 Bing Crosby was the fastest six furlongs of the meet; the race historically is run in 1:08-and-change. Other relatively fast six-furlong wins were by maidens. Barbecue Eddie (1:11.56) ran the fourth-fastest six-furlong time of the meet; he is now one of the circuitOs elite sprinters. Bob Black Jack ran six furlongs in a relatively fast 1:11.67, and became one of the fastest 3-year-olds in 2008. The surface was slow, but it was true.

Obviously, what happens in Del Mar does not necessarily stay in Del Mar. Pacific Classic winner Student Council later won a Grade 1 on dirt at Pimlico; Del Mar Futurity winner Georgie Boy won two graded stakes at Santa Anita; Golden Doc A won a statebred stakes at Del Mar and later a Grade 1 at Santa Anita; More Happy won a maiden race at Del Mar and a Grade 3 at Saratoga; Cry and Catch Me won a maiden sprint at Del Mar and a Grade 1 at Santa Anita.

The point is, good horses still outrun their competition on Polytrack at Del Mar, despite grumblings from synthetic adversaries. And to race successfully on Polytrack, a trainer must adapt.

John Sadler finished the 2007 meet as third-leading trainer, but he started 0 for 13 on the main track and did not win on Polytrack until the 12th day of the 43-day meet.

"It took us a couple weeks to figure out how it was playing, and we kind of figured out what to do," Sadler said. "By the end of the meet, we were running horses with maybe one extra work."

Over the final month, Sadler won with 11 of 41 main-track starters. He was not the only trainer who started slowly. Doug OONeill led the standings for the third straight season, but was just 4 for 54 on the main track before winning with 19 of his last 110.

Early in the meet, was OONeill running short horses?

"I think so," he admitted. "In the afternoon, the track was so tiring. At a mile, my horses were getting six or seven furlongs before getting fatigued. On a normal, faster surface you probably could have [lasted farther], but the way that afternoon track played last year, even though it was safe, it was extremely tiring.

"If I was going to play a race down there, IOd love to see a horse that has already run down there, or a horse that was backing up in distance. A stretch-out . . . IOd be careful."

As for handicappers preparing for a 2008 summer attack, they must be prepared to tweak their analysis after the meet begins. As Sadler noted, "This year is unique again, because nobody really knows how itOs going to play; it is pure speculation."

Bettors were freaked out early last year, when times were slow and boxcar payoffs punctuated opening week. It was difficult to maintain sanity the first week when three main-track winners were bombs - the $10,000 claimer Freedom Class paid $133.80 in a route; the $10,000 claiming sprinter Gasin the Turbo paid $124; and Cal-bred first-level allowance router Echezeaux paid $133.

However, those opening-week upset winners produced the highest win payoffs the entire meet, and form eventually settled down. And while similar form reversals are a regular occurrence any time the circuit moves from one track to another, there is not likely to be as much wackiness to start summer 2008.

A profitable summer at Del Mar always requires a handicapper to be creative, logical, disciplined, and attentive to detail. Maybe the track will play like last year, and two-turn speed will fade again. But given the revised water and maintenance procedures, it seems probable that speed will carry farther, particularly around two turns. No one can be sure.

One consistent aspect of the synthetic era has been the ability of top horsemen to tailor training routines to the nuances of the track. Bob Baffert typically works his horses fast, and on dirt they produce top form. The fast-working strategy is less effective on slower synthetic surfaces.

"The worst thing you could do last year was to train like Baffert, [five furlongs] in 58," Sadler said. "They go out there, they pull hard, and then they stagger. You needed to train like [Bobby] Frankel, get them to go 1:01 and kick in."

Tried-and-true trainer angles applied last year, even while horsemen grappled with the new surface. Examples included three fresh-horse upset wins by Carla Gaines (two debut maidens and one comebacker); Jack Carava won three races first off the claim; and Jeff Mullins was live with everything, particularly recent acquisitions (first or second off the claim, trainer transfers).

The sheer size of the OONeill stable means he is favored to lead the meet again; Jerry Hollendorfer will have his strongest group of stakes horses at Del Mar; and Northern California leader Bill Morey will have a major presence. Baffert will be live with anything he starts, because he has made it clear that if he or his horses are uncomfortable with the Polytrack surface, they will ship to Saratoga.

The jockey colony at Del Mar will be deep, due to the addition of the circuitOs new leading rider, Rafael Bejarano, who will spend his first summer at Del Mar. The 2008 meet also marks the California return of Garrett Gomez, while Joel Rosario picked up momentum at the spring-summer meet at Hollywood, and is expected to make an impact.

With all the hand-wringing over the main track, it should be noted that 25 percent of the Del Mar racing program will be on the same turf course as last year. Approximately two turf sprints are run each week, and speed historically is deadly. More than two-thirds of the turf sprints last year were won by a horse within one length of the lead after the first quarter-mile; at one point in midseason, eight straight turf sprints were won gate to wire.

The turf oval at Del Mar is tight, inside posts are favorable, and most winners are in position at the second pace call (a quarter-mile to run). While front-runners can win on the Del Mar grass, speed becomes even more effective late in the meet, from mid-August on. Still, handicappers paying more attention to course profile than to the basics of condition, class, speed, and pace will miss the big picture.

The time-tested principles of handicapping do not change at Del Mar, but a horseplayer should never get too comfortable. Even during summer.

And if updated water and maintenance procedures affect the Polytrack surface as greatly as many expect, then Del Mar horseplayers attuned to shifting bias will continue to have an edge.

Just like always.