04/22/2007 11:00PM

Horses give Polytrack a test run

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DEL MAR, Calif. - If ever a track seemingly did not need to have something labeled "all weather," it would be Del Mar, which has 43 straight days of fast tracks every summer. Its oft-criticized dirt main track was removed last year, though, following several years of complaints over its safety.

Earlier this year, Polytrack was installed at Del Mar, and on Monday, horses were brought to the track to gallop over it for the first time. The surface proved as good as advertised, since a steady rain hit the area Sunday afternoon and evening, but Polytrack soaked it up and was fine for training.

"I like it a lot," said trainer Peter Miller, who along with trainer Doug O'Neill brought a handful of horses to Del Mar on Monday morning.

"They bounce over it," Miller said. "It's consistent. When a horse is getting to the end of a gallop and gets tired, he doesn't start bobbling like on conventional dirt."

Miller and O'Neill sent a horse apiece onto the track about 6:30oa.m. in front of Del Mar's upper management, and several media members who had been invited by the track. A few more horses went out as the morning wore on. Miller said the track was "a lot tighter than it probably normally will be," owing to firming up because of the rain.

Miller rode his horse, Passion for Gumbo, onto the track along with the O'Neill-trained Steamboat Bay, who was ridden by exercise rider Marco Ramirez. After their routine gallops, Miller said, "The biggest benefit of Polytrack is its lack of divots."

"On traditional dirt, you get more and more divots as more and more horses work over it, and then more and more horses step into the divots," Miller said. "With Polytrack, you don't get divots. And at Del Mar in the past, if you weren't on the track five minutes after a break, it looked like a torn-up racetrack."

O'Neill, who trains regularly over Cushion Track at Hollywood Park, called Del Mar to volunteer to bring a few horses to Monday's grand opening. He said Ramirez told him Del Mar's track "feels a lot like Keeneland," which also has Polytrack.

"It's nice for the game," O'Neill said. "It's so nice down here, but the inconsistency of the racetrack brought some negative press. Hopefully, this answers the question, 'What are you doing for the racehorses down here?' "

The negative press, born from a grim casualty rate in recent summers, was one of several factors that led Del Mar to install Polytrack. Craig Fravel, Del Mar's executive vice president, was the driving force on bringing Polytrack to Del Mar, and he was beaming with pride as horses galloped over it Monday.

"It feels unbelievably good," he said. "I've never been more excited about anything in this business."