04/18/2007 11:00PM

Keeneland confounding horseplayers


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - They paved paradise and put up a Polytrack.

For years, handicappers had to take Keeneland results with a grain of salt, because the main track was inherently biased in favor of inside speed. But while the meet was in progress, the game was easy pickings for players who realized the surface was the first and foremost handicapping factor; just check your horseplayer ego at the door and string along for the ride. Any probable pacesetter, short or long, was a potential bet, and often at a square price if it wasn't from "designer" connections, or its recent Beyer Speed Figures looked a bit light. To make things even easier, horses drawn too far outside were swift and almost sure eliminations, which cut study time way down.

As they watch one confounding outcome after another on Keeneland's all-weather surface, it's probably fair to say the majority of bettors (me included) are in mourning for the old conveyor belt, and sometimes feel that handicapping the new Keeneland is a grown-up version of pin the tail on the Thorougbred. It's been fairly easy for handicappers to side-step situations that involve the new-fangled surfaces up to now, but with Arlington Park, Del Mar, Golden Gate, and Santa Anita all transforming to synthetic surfaces this year, the ignore-it-and-it-will-go-away strategy is fast becoming impractical.

Some observations from Blue Grass Day:

* A lot of horses coming off turf races do well on Polytrack, but some don't, and at this point there's not a soul alive who can approach the angle with confidence. A couple of last Saturday's winners, Tiger Woodman ($13.60) and Carnera ($11), absolutely hate conventional dirt: Woodman had been beaten a combined 34 lengths in two starts at Monmouth Park and Aqueduct early in his career; Carnera had lost two starts on the Big A's inner-dirt track in January 2006 by a total 49 3/4 lengths.

* In the off-the-turf Jenny Wiley, it seemed logical that Wait a While would handle the Polytrack. In addition to being a tiger on grass, the champion filly had been versatile enough to go 3-1-3 from 8 starts on dirt, including wins on a harrowed "good" track and a sealed sloppy track, and a runner-up finish in the Ashland on Keeneland's dearly departed dirt. Wrong. She never raised a gallop, and beat one horse at odds of 1-2.

* The four turf horses in the Commonwealth Breeders' Cup ran

1-2-3-5, with Silent Name ($14.40) spearheading the all-turf trifecta worth $1,242. In 20-20 hindsight, Silent Name had never run on anything other than grass, but had been training all year on the Cushion Track at Hollywood Park. Then again, the well-regarded Ramsgate also trained at Hollywood - and had won all three of his starts on Cushion Track last fall - but was never a factor.

A typical Polytrack race unfolds very much like a turf race. Everyone sits chilly to the quarter pole, at which point the field fans out across the track turning for home and all hell breaks loose. In race 2 last Saturday, Glackity Glack was last of 11 through the first half-mile, then, according to the race chart, " . . . circled ten wide leaving the turn and closed relentlessly to be along in time." Nope, you didn't see that kind of a chart comment for the winner of a Keeneland dirt race last spring - except for Sun King, who came from nine miles out of it to win last year's Commonwealth and beat me out of the Premier Pick 4.

Whether the winner has been up close or far behind early, the one common trait is finishing ability. Silent Name was a forward factor from the outset, pressing the pace, but sealed the deal with a last eighth in 11.69 seconds.

* Setting a slow pace is no advantage for a horse unless it can quicken in the lane. Teuflesberg waltzed along in fractions of 26.12, 51.46 and 1:16.65 in the Blue Grass; he would have stolen that race in the old days, but he was swarmed by rivals through a last three-eighths in 34.68 seconds.

As painfully slow as the Blue Grass pace was, it was nothing compared to Wednesday's Doubledogdare Stakes, in which Asi Siempre kicked off her season with a powerful-looking score despite lagging well off glacial splits of 27.14, 52.11, and 1:16.91. They came home the last 5/16ths in a brisk 29.49, though, and Asi Siempre made up 4 1/2 lengths in that fraction, capped by a last sixteenth in 5.94 seconds!

It's a brave new world out there, and the landscape is changing with each passing day. If you're getting nostalgic for a good old-fashioned lone speed play, try to hang on somehow until Nov. 28 - opening day on Aqueduct's inner dirt.