10/11/2006 11:00PM

Keeneland still hard to read


NEW YORK - After just a few days of racing over the new Polytrack surface at Keeneland, it is clear that we are living through a transformative time in American racing that will only accelerate when artificial surfaces spread to California and beyond in the months ahead.

While there has been Polytrack racing at Turfway since last winter and at Woodbine for the last five weeks, the first few days of the Keeneland fall meeting that began Oct. 6 have given a national audience its first look at truly premier racing on a synthetic track. Perhaps most important, at least for the short-term bankroll interests of players looking forward to the Breeders' Cup races Nov. 4, Keeneland in its first three days ran four Grade 1 or 2 Cup preps that will affect how tens of millions of dollars are bet next month on the sport's biggest day.

It is too soon to draw sweeping generalizations on the basis of three dozen races, and some of the quick conclusions being spouted have no basis in fact yet. Players have been buzzing that Polytrack is much slower than dirt and is responsible for a raft of implausible longshot winners. The numbers say otherwise when compared to the opening days of Keeneland's spring meeting that began April 7. In the spring on dirt, the average running times of the first six races at six furlongs were 46.08 to the half and 1:11.26 at the finish. Over Polytrack this fall, the first six such races averaged 46.16 to the half and 1:11.22 at the wire, minuscule differences. Also, both meetings had exactly seven horses win at odds of over 10-1 in the first three cards.

On the other hand, there appear to be fundamental differences in the way the races are being run. The key is still to look for speed horses, but whereas those were probably the ones to bet six months ago, so far they have been the first ones you are supposed to toss. It's a bit more like handicapping grass than dirt races. Making sense of final times has also become the often frustrating exercise that making final-time speed figures for pace-dependent turf races can be. The stakes horses just don't seem to be running the expected significantly faster final times than ordinary horses on the undercard.

The two most puzzling instances were Keeneland's preps for the Sprint and Distaff, last Saturday's Grade 3 Phoenix and Sunday's Grade 1 Spinster. In the Phoenix, closers ruled as Kelly's Landing, Areyoutalkintome, and Level Playingfield came from seventh, sixth, and ninth early to run one-two-three. The outcome was not that shocking, and the two tepid favorites, Coach Jimi Lee and Silver Wagon, ran a close fourth and fifth. Kelly's Landing holds the six-furlong track record at Churchill Downs and can pop a Beyer Speed Figure of 108 when he's in the mood.

His winning Phoenix time of 1:09.94, however, made no sense. Earlier in the day, ordinary older $10,000 claimers had covered the distance in 1:10.94, and half an hour earlier allowance fillies had gone seven furlongs in 1:23.14. If you applied the same variant to all three races, the Phoenix would get an implausibly low Beyer of 88. So what do you do with Kelly's Landing in the Sprint? Is he coming off an 88, the 98 he was assigned, or the 108 he's run four times in the past?

The Spinster was even more confounding. Asi Siempre, making her first start on anything but grass, won by 2 1/4 lengths over eight fillies in a race where it was less than three lengths from second place to ninth. The fractions were slow by grass standards, but astounding for a main track: 25.05, 50.50, and 1:16.20. The early leaders were not New York-bred maidens but the Grade 1 winners Summerly, Spun Sugar, and Happy Ticket. Played straight, the race would have earned an abysmal Beyer of 83 relative to the rest of the card. It was upgraded to a 92, but it's still a complete mystery as to whether Asi Siempre is a blooming serious new player for the Distaff or a grass horse who loped past eight fillies who simply hated Polytrack.

It's a new wrinkle to the already daunting challenge of Breeders' Cup handicapping, but in a way it's the same old Keeneland enigma. Before anyone gets all misty-eyed over the discarded Keeneland dirt track, it should be remembered that the best way to handicap Keeneland's preps for major events in recent years has been simply to draw a line through both the good and bad efforts. You don't want Sinister Minister and his 116 Blue Grass Beyer in the Kentucky Derby, but Bluegrass Cat becomes playable at 30-1 if you cross out his dismal Blue Grass. In last year's Distaff, the intriguing horse wasn't bias-aided Spinster winner Pampered Princess, but the against-the-grain runner-up, Pleasant Home.

Perhaps the track can borrow Las Vegas's slogan if it turns out that, now as then, what happens at Keeneland stays at Keeneland.