11/10/2006 12:00AM

Eccentric teaches lessons about Polytrack


NEW YORK - Early returns from the brave new world of Polytrack racing at Keeneland and Woodbine indicate that we may be dealing with a surface that is as different from traditional dirt as is grass. The nature of Polytrack was emphasized by the victory of the British import Eccentric in the Grade 3 Fayette Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 28.

Trained in England by Andrew Reid through 2005, Eccentric recorded seven victories on Lingfield Park's Polytrack course between the ages of 2 and 4, leading connections to believe that he would act on traditional dirt tracks outside of England, where the money for dirt racing is more lucrative. And so Eccentric was sent on his travels in search of big "traditional" dirt prizes in Sweden, Japan, and Dubai.

The assumptions of Reid and owner Gary Tanaka were proved wrong, however, as Eccentric failed in the listed Pramms Memorial at Jagersro. Undaunted, he was sent to Tokyo in search of bigger game in the Japan Cup Dirt last November, only to trail home last of 16, distanced by the field.

At that point owner Tanaka decided to send Eccentric to Dubai for a quixotic try at the Dubai World Cup. Switched to local trainer Sateesh Seemar, he finished a decent third in Round 2 of the Maktoum Challenge, a Grade 3 prep for the World Cup at Nad Al Sheba, where the dirt course is similar to that of Churchill Downs. Next time, however, he was a distant 10th in the Group 2 Round 3 of the Maktoum Challenge. A dull sixth in a handicap on March 9 ended Eccentric's Dubaian odyssey, but not Tanaka's dreams.

He sent Eccentric to Roger Attfield in Canada, where he finished third in a one-mile turf allowance at Woodbine. His victory next time out in the Fayette on the Keeneland Polytrack offers the most informative evidence to date that Polytrack form does not necessarily translate into dirt form, or vice versa.

With Polytrack surfaces at Britain's Lingfield Park, Kempton Park, and Wolverhampton, plus Fibresand tracks at Southwell in England and at Deauville, Cagnes-sur-Mer, and Pau in France, European trainers will have taken notice of Eccentric's Keeneland victory. Polytrack stakes at Keeneland and Woodbine, as well as stakes on Hollywood Park's similar Cushion Track, could soon be the targets of Europe's improving Polytrack and Fibresand winners.

But the example Eccentric has set doesn't end with what he has revealed about the relative natures of Polytrack and traditional dirt surfaces. Eccentric, a 5-year-old son of the good turf miler Most Welcome, also has proven form on turf, having won the 1 1/4-mile, Group 3 Winter Hill Stakes at Windsor in August 2005. Coupled with his failures on traditional dirt, his Winter Hill victory - one that is comparable to his Fayette victory - suggests that what horses encounter on turf is more similar to what they experience on Polytrack than on dirt.

There are two reasons for this. First, artificial dirt tracks are, like turf courses, more forgiving than traditional dirt surfaces. Secondly, the kickback on Polytrack and Fibresand is minimal, much more like that of a turf course than traditional dirt tracks.

The prime reason American races are run front-to-back, i.e., fast early and slow late, has always been to avoid kickback. It took American jockeys two decades of turf racing to realize that there is no reason to set a breakneck pace in grass races. In the last 10 years we have seen turf races in America run at a more European back-to-front style, with slow early fractions off which horses frequently run the last quarter in less than 23 seconds, something that never happens on dirt.

With minimal kickback on Polytrack and other artificial dirt surfaces, jockeys may already be in the process of adopting back-to-front strategies on such tracks. If that is the case, and if other racetracks follow the Keeneland, Woodbine, and Hollywood leads, the very nature of dirt racing in America could undergo a sea change during the next few years, one that would impact the foundation of the game, not only from a betting point of view, but from the ultra-selective standpoint of breeders. The speed requirements that have become so important to the American breeding industry may take a back seat to other concerns, such as stamina and soundness, induced by a racing industry in which traditional dirt racing will have gone the way of the dinosaur.