07/16/2008 11:00PM

Get up to speed on faster surface

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Confident horseplayers who believe Del Mar is a potential gold mine would have been well-prepared Wednesday, opening day of the 2008 summer season.

After all, a wealth of handicapping information was available to anyone still uncertain about the subtleties of Polytrack. And though the new surface played slow in 2007, Del Mar officials bluntly predicted that water would speed up the track in 2008.

If so, the bias that compromised two-turn speed horses last summer would be minimized. Handicappers could go into the new meet expecting the change, and on opening day the hope for a bias-free surface was realized. Race 9 winner Khun Dan became the first horse in Del Mar history to lead at every call of a 1 1/16-mile race on Polytrack.

The surface was watered before first post, and again between races 4 and 5. The schedule kept the track tight, fast, and fair throughout the card, and the difference was immediately clear. Plan for Fun, a $10,000 claimer who last summer won a mile race in 1:41.43, needed only 1:37.82 to win at the same level in the first race.

The two route races underscore the season's first curiosity. A final-time variation of 3.61 seconds, followed by a wire-to-wire winner, is evidence that the track is entirely different. Yet the $6.80 victory by Plan for Fun shows that the horse-for-course angle is alive and well. Plan for Fun won on Del Mar dirt in 2006, slow Polytrack in 2007, and fast Polytrack in 2008.

So are things really all that different this year? Is the relative speed of the racing surface significant for handicappers who use speed figures? Plan for Fun earned an 81 Beyer last summer, and a 78 Beyer this summer even while running considerably faster.

From a speed-figure perspective, it might not matter all that much whether the surface is fast or slow. Horses such as Plan for Fun, with a history of running well at Del Mar, are generally reliable to reproduce their figures. But it is not that simple. Plan for Fun won Wednesday largely because of a speed duel that set up his closing rally.

That scenario will not always happen on the quicker surface, which is why two secondary factors will require constant revision throughout summer - track profile and pedigree. The pace characteristics of winners (track profile) seemingly have busted out of the 2007 anti-speed pattern.

As for pedigree, the issue is whether results from last summer will apply this summer on the quicker surface.

It sure would simplify matters if 2007 trends continued into 2008, because the useful handicapping publication "Southern California Horses to Watch" compiles indispensable meet-specific data related to pedigree. Physicality expert Joe Takach produces the guide, and selected examples from the end of the 2007 Del Mar meet are worth revisiting.

The stallions below were represented by a creditable number of Polytrack winners during the 2007 Del Mar meet. They are ranked by win percentage.

Sire - Win% - Wins - Starts

Event of the Year - 40 - 6 - 15

Tribal Rule* - 38 - 8 - 21

Tale of the Cat - 31 - 5 - 16

Forestry - 30 - 4 - 13

Old Topper - 29 - 8 - 27

El Corredor - 20 - 4 - 20

Lit de Justice - 20 - 4 - 20

Unusual Heat - 15 - 9 - 58

* Rush With Thunder accounted for 4 of the 8 winners by Tribal Rule

Conversely, the stallions below were represented by a relatively low number of Polytrack winners during the 2007 Del Mar meet.

Sire - Win% - Wins - Starts

Bertrando - 5 - 3 - 56

Swiss Yodeler - 7 - 5 - 66

The low win rates by offspring of Bertrando and Swiss Yodeler initially were surprising. According to "Horses to Watch," those two stallions entered the summer of 2007 as the state's leading synthetic sires. Bertrando's first 152 starters on Cushion Track at Hollywood Park won 25 races (16 percent); Swiss Yodeler's first 220 starters won 22 races (10 percent).

In hindsight, there may be a rational explanation. The synthetic surface at Hollywood produces final times that approximate final times on dirt. Cushion Track at Hollywood is less tiring than the initial season of Polytrack racing at Del Mar; offspring of Swiss Yodeler and Bertrando do seem to prefer a quick surface.

If so, and if the fast opening-day times continue through summer, one expects Bertrando and Swiss Yodeler to sire a higher percentage of Del Mar winners on this surface. Two fillies by those sires were scheduled to start Friday in the CTBA Stakes; the performances by Atka (Swiss Yodeler) and Amina (Bertrando) may provide a clue.

On the flip side, the question is what to make of sires that had an inordinately high rate of success last summer on slow Polytrack? Will they be less effective on a quicker surface? Or are offspring of Event of the Year, Tribal Rule, and Old Topper simply good horses?

There are no clear answers in the short-term pedigree data. It is just another riddle facing handicappers as the sport continues its bumpy transition into the synthetic era.