09/05/2007 11:00PM

Futurity accentuated positive


DEL MAR, Calif. - The Polytrack surface at Del Mar generated more heat than light this summer, both literally, with surface temperatures sometimes topping 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and figuratively, led by the day Bob Baffert shipped his best babies east in an operatic huff.

In the end, though, Polytrack saved its best for last. The $250,000 Del Mar Futurity on Wednesday was the final main-track race of the meet. It was won by the California-bred Georgie Boy, and it was hands-down the most exciting event of the summer, a seven-furlong brawl among 13 determined young colts and geldings crowned by a finish that could have gone any one of several ways.

The runner-up, Salute the Sarge, might have won and remained undefeated if he hadn't had to dance around the flying heels of the horses arrayed in front of him at a key point late in the race.

Third-place Drill Down, gliding along the inside through the first half of the race, might have won had Michael Baze been able to find room on the turn instead of being forced to wait another half a furlong to ramble on.

Even fourth-place Leonides deserves high marks for pressing the pace and hanging tough, despite missing a key start earlier in the meet.

And don't look for Richard Mandella to be too disappointed in his pair of Dixie Chatter (fifth) and Kanan Dume (sixth), both of them light on experience and unraced since July, and much smarter now that they have been involved in an old-fashioned throw-down.

There were fewer than two lengths separating the first six at the finish, a refreshing change from some of the widespread Polytrack fields that resembled a bad day on old-school, hock-deep mud.

Georgie Boy, a son of the Storm Cat stallion Tribal Rule, named for owner-breeder George Schwary, was home first by a half-length, evening the score with Salute the Sarge, who beat him a length in the Best Pal Stakes last month. Georgie Boy's trainer, Kathy Walsh, switched from Hall of Famer Mike Smith to national leader Garret Gomez for the Futurity - nice choices - and was rewarded with her first Grade 1 victory at the seaside course.

"I'd never been on him, but I watched all his races," Gomez said, late in the day, as the Del Mar jockeys' room was stripped and packed for the next stop on the circuit. "Kathy didn't want him on the lead" - like he had been in the Best Pal - "so I warmed him up alone and got him into a nice, relaxed lope, because that's the way I wanted him to leave there."

Georgie Boy complied. After a quarter-mile he had one horse beaten, and by the half he had moved all the way up to 11th. In the past, this was definitely not the way to win a Del Mar Futurity over the traditional terrain, so generous to horses with early speed. But that was then - this was Polytrack. Gomez gave voice to the feeling.

"The advantage of Polytrack with young horses is that it gives them confidence," Gomez said. "One thing I really don't miss about dirt is that you don't have to jam 'em to be first or second after a sixteenth of a mile. They don't have to be in front. They can learn different things without getting discouraged. On Polytrack, with a first-time starter, if they don't break, they can still get there. Horses learn, and instead of staggering home, they're running home."

As a by-product, Gomez noted, a jockey will be faced with making far more decisions during the course of a highly competitive event on synthetics. Kent Desormeaux, who flew west from New York to ride Salute the Sarge, added his Hall of Fame spin.

"Here's my observation," Desormeaux said, "and the Futurity was the only race I rode here last summer, too. Walking to the post last year, all those 2-year-olds were jumping, and soaking-wet sweating, all nervous wrecks. Today, every horse walked to the gate like professionals, not mischievous babies, and I think it's because trainers are not having to make these horses speed-crazy. They're all settled, like 9-year-olds, instead of psycho speed freaks. It was amazing."

There are still questions to be answered, questions with a lot at stake as their careers unfold. The best of these California 2-year-olds, most of them ignorant in the ways of racing on dirt, will be faced with a track like Monmouth Park, this year's site of the Breeders' Cup, or even Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park, playing fields for the Triple Crown come next spring.

"There's really no way to know how he'll handle dirt," Gomez said of Georgie Boy. "But I guess you could look at Baffert's horses at Saratoga, who had been training here. They were running like monsters back there."

Nearly every jockey coming out of the first tier of the Futurity vowed that his horse would get better as the distances increase. These were unusual noises, emanating from the aftermath of a major California 2-year-old event.

"The longer the better," said Del Mar champ Michael Baze, who got off Salute the Sarge to ride Drill Down, a son of the miler El Corredor. "When he goes longer, he'll still have that nice, strong kick."

That doesn't sound synthetic at all.