11/20/2006 1:00AM

Find the synthetic-track bias


It was a $50,000 claiming route for 3-year-olds and up, and for that amount on Aug. 11, Hess had claimed Tinquilco out of a well-rated second-place finish from Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally.

Almost dutifully, because no insider yet has uttered a derogatory word about the new synthetic racing surface at Hollywood park called Cushion Track, Hess explained how Tinquilco had been suffering from "sore feet," but after training for weeks on the new surface, the 5-year-old was feeling much better.

The "insight" was significant because Tinquilco fit both the class level and speed pars for the $50,000 race, and on the cold dope alone would be regarded by most handicappers as among the main contenders. How helpful it was that the trainer assured the bettors that the horse's once sore feet no longer were hurting.

Naturally, despite fitting the race so snugly, and supposedly feeling so much better, Tinquilco ran poorly, out of the money, never looking like a winner.

The lesson is simple but fundamental, and it should not be lost on handicappers who will hear similar comments from horsemen and other insiders for the next few years. No matter what trainers observe and say on behalf of the new synthetic racing surfaces, and how much better their horses have been feeling as a result, the comments warrant no standing in the handicapping process.

As handicappers and bettors have long appreciated, but the television producers apparently do not, virtually every public comment a trainer delivers about a horse is intended to please the owner.

Similarly, with jockeys, virtually every public comment is intended to please the trainers, who provide them their mounts.

Any rare candid exceptions cannot be distinguished from the usual platitudes, and are too few to matter. The presence of Cushion Track and the other synthetic surfaces merely provides yet another public platform for trainers to patronize their owners with positive observations about their horses.

It's a regrettable development for handicappers vulnerable to "inside information," and not because as a function of Cushion Track, Polytrack, Tapeta, and the synthetic rest, the horses' feet, tendons, joints, and ligaments will no longer be so susceptible to pain. Horsemen know as much already, and will be eager to say as much, but the substance of their observations should mean nothing to handicappers.

The correlation between pain and performance cannot be estimated reliably. Thousands of sore, hurting horses have won tens of thousands of races across the decades, while thousands of perfectly sound horses in the same races have refused to extend themselves.

Television in the age of synthetic tracks only exacerbates the problem. The prerace interviews with trainers about the readiness and condition of their horses have always amounted to a waste of time, and now the outpouring of testimonials as to how much better the horses are feeling are destined to be far more misleading than helpful.

Even if Hess's information about Tinquilco's rehabilitated feet were true, what has not been cleared is to what degree the feet, knees, shoulders, tendons, joints, and ligaments of the other runners in the race and now training on Cushion Track have been similarly, perhaps more extensively, rehabilitated. And again, the correlation with performance is zero.

The adjustment of handicappers to the complications inherent in the rise of synthetic surfaces is best reduced to a simple tool that has been available but underused for two decades: the compilation of track profiles.

The technique involves a cursory review of the results charts, and even for handicappers who have not attended the races, it requires no more than five minutes a day. At each distinct distance - or at least for sprints, routes, and turf races - handicappers record in a file or notebook the position and beaten lengths of the winners at the first and second calls.

Even small samples of data, as would have been immediately apparent at the recent Keeneland fall meeting, can reveal whether distinct running styles have been favored at particular distances by the track surface.

The daily recordings will reveal as well sudden shifts of biases, as when the opening-day card of the Hollywood Park fall meeting favored off-pace closers absolutely, but the following two days did not.

Track profiles are easy to construct and can be greatly instructive, notably when an experiment with synthetic surfaces has begun on a telltale scale.

Exotic bettors willing to allot 10 minutes a day to the practice can enhance the power of track profiles by constructing them as well for the horses that have finished second. In the mid-1990's, the advice was given by an inspired devotee of the practice, and it has paid dividends. Horses that finish second often display running styles dissimilar to the running styles of winners, as in the conventional cases, when deep closers finish second to the speed horses, or the tiring speed horses finish second to the stronger closers.

One clear advantage of Cushion Track is that while the cheaper speed will no longer survive against the classier closers, the quality speed will prevail against the cheaper closers. Early evidence has supported both trends. If the trends become persistent, the competitive quality of racing in Southern California will have improved tremendously.

The opposite patterns have endured on the West Coast circuit for far too long.

A fascinating consequence of the synthetic surfaces has been their compatibility with the running styles of turf horses.

The turf-to-dirt move has become commonplace on Cushion Track, even as it did at Keeneland on Polytrack. At both venues, it took horsemen no more than a weekend to recognize that their turf horses might relish the change. A number of those turf runners already have won.

Alert handicappers, like horsemen, should resolve to favor turf horses switching to the synthetic surfaces. For one persuasive reason: at major tracks, turf horses tend to compete in better races, not in cheaper races, and in the main will be classier horses. So if a shift to the Cushion Track at Hollywood Park is accompanied by a drop in class, or by a probable pace preference, the turf-to-synthetic surface horses may prove to be the best bets of the day or week.

To be sure, track profiles can include a notation as to how often the turf horses have been winning on the main track.

To conclude with a timely example of the importance of track profiles, in the race where Tinquilco disappointed his trainer and backers, the winner was a 4-year-old shipper from Keeneland named Count Orange.

Count Orange fit neither the class level nor the speed pars nor the distance of the Hollywood Park race, except for an anomaly in his recent record. But in two starts on Polytrack, Count Orange had won going away while running near the front on Sept. 17 at Turfway Park, while at Keeneland he had pressed the pace on the anti-speed bias of Polytrack, and even had grabbed the lead, before finishing fourth of nine, beaten a mere 2 3/4 lengths.

The Keeneland race qualified as a strong performance against a severe bias. Whether they had compiled track profiles at the two tracks or not, no doubt a number of aware Kentucky simulcast bettors that had recognized the acute differences between Polytrack and Cushion Track collected on Count Orange at Hollywood Park.

But the differences between Polytrack, Cushion Track, and Tapeta rarely will be as extreme as they have at Keeneland and Hollywood Park this fall, not to mention the variations that will occur when horses switch back from synthetic surfaces to the traditional dirt tracks.

To get the big mutuels that are certain to accompany all the moving parts, handicappers must compile the track profiles that apply. As noted, with results charts in hand, it takes only five to 10 minutes a day.