07/14/2008 12:00AM

Faster times may lie ahead

Mark Johnson Photo
Opening Day at Del Mar brings some questions about how its Polytrack will be playing this year.

DEL MAR, Calif. - One minute and forty seconds. Write it down.

More than 50,000 raucous fans are expected to cheer the festive launch of the summer racing season Wednesday at Del Mar, where finding the prettiest hat on opening day is easier than predicting the final time of the first race of the meet.

"Time-wise? It's going to be quicker," racing secretary Tom Robbins promised. At least, that is what many hope. Del Mar last summer achieved its objective by installing a synthetic Polytrack surface that significantly reduced injuries.

But the racing on Polytrack was different. The surface got hot and mushy in the afternoon, times were slow, and the track was blatantly unfair to speed horses around two turns. So will this season be more of the same? The answer may come in the very first race, a $10,000 claimer at one mile.

"I hesitate trying to predict time, but I would be surprised if we didn't break 1:40," Robbins said. That would be about two seconds faster than last summer. And while the forecast places undue significance on one race, it sets the tone and will indicate how a change in maintenance - watering the track - affects the speed and dynamics of racing.

Race-1 contender Plan for Fun needed 1:41.43 to win a one-mile $10,000 claimer last summer. Plan for Fun recently was claimed by Jeff Mullins, who won with 15 of 62 Polytrack starters a year ago.

"People said it was embarrassing they were running so slow, but it didn't embarrass me to go the bank and cash that check," he said.

Rather than complain, Mullins adjusted. "I've never really had a problem with the track," he said. "A lot of guys like to see their horses works fast, and you just couldn't do that on that track. I ignored the stopwatch, and changed my training a little bit," said Mullins, shifting the emphasis to slower, stamina-type works.

Good idea. As for handicappers, most should realize by now that afternoon performance trumps morning workouts. And if the first race Wednesday leaves many still wondering about the subtleties of the year-old Polytrack surface, it will be perfectly clear by race 3. The six-furlong sprint for maiden fillies and mares includes a front-running standout.

Ima Offended set wicked fractions and finished second last out at Hollywood Park, and she figures to shake loose Wednesday. A good effort by Ima Offended would alleviate worries about Hollywood form holding up at Del Mar, which it does. Secondly, it would ease unfounded concerns concerning front-running sprinters on Polytrack. Last summer around one turn, speed held.

Even while the meet begins with questions regarding the track, the horses still do the work. Lava Man runs Sunday in the Grade 1 Eddie Read Handicap on grass. Street Boss runs July 27 in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Handicap for sprinters. Zenyatta might run Aug. 2 in the Grade 2 Clement Hirsch Handicap for fillies and mares. Pure Clan runs Aug. 16 in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks. The Grade 1 Pacific Classic is Aug. 24.

A pair of Grade 1 races for 2-year-olds are at the end of the meet -the Debutante for fillies on Sept. 1, the Futurity on closing day, Sept. 3.

Split divisions of the opening-day stakes are the first legs of Del Mar's three-race turf series for 3-year-olds, and key starters in both divisions of the $75,000 Oceanside Stakes are starting over. Moral Compass was purchased since a third-place finish in a Grade 3 at Belmont. He will make his California debut in race 6. Dixie Chatter, a Grade 1 winner last fall, will try to jump-start his campaign when he switches to grass for race 8.

Moral Compass arrived in California last week, and trainer Jack Carava admits the colt faces obstacles in the one-mile Oceanside. "It was a rush to get him out here and we had to condense his training," he said. "I'm sure he is compromised, because his [July 11] work was pretty far away from his last work [June 29] at Belmont."

Garrett Gomez will ride for owner La Canada Stables.

The first division of the Oceanside is the weaker half. Other starters include graded-stakes-placed Indian Sun, Ez Dreamer, and Sky Cape. California Blaze will stretch out to two turns and could upset. French import Coronel Moldes will be making his U.S. debut. Yes It's a Cat underwent throat surgery since he last raced.

Dixie Chatter finished third in a pair of Grade 3 races on the Hollywood main track, and drops in class and switches to turf in race 8. But he landed in the stronger division. Front-runner Liberian Freighter dueled on a wicked pace at a 1 1/8 miles last time, finishing third in the Grade 3 Cinema. If he avoids a duel with stretch-out sprinter Devils Afleet, he can win up front. Other starters include Afleet Ruler and Tangled Tango.