04/15/2007 11:00PM

Keeneland surface made for a mad dash

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WASHINGTON - Racing fans expected Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes to be the definitive prep for the Kentucky Derby, with a showdown between the two leading contenders, Street Sense and Great Hunter.

But when four horses reached the finish line at Keeneland almost simultaneously, with 8-1 shot Dominican prevailing by a nose, the result revealed almost nothing about their relative merits. It told nothing about what may happen at Churchill Downs three weeks hence. In fact, the Blue Grass, which was contested for the first time over the artificial surface Polytrack, bore little resemblance to Thoroughbred racing as most Americans know it.

Since Keeneland installed Polytrack last fall, the surface has turned the game there upside down. American racing has historically favored horses endowed with speed; its breeding industry has invested billions of dollars to produce such horses. Yet at Keeneland, a track that used to be dominated by front-runners, speed has become a liability. Of the first 48 races run on the surface last year, only one horse was able to lead all the way. Jockeys adapted to the nature of the surface by restraining their mounts to a degree rarely seen in dirt races. The horses would be tightly bunched, as they are in Europe, until they turned into the stretch and made a dash to the wire.

I wrote last fall that I didn't like this foreign type of racing. Others disagreed. Keeneland's president, Nick Nicholson, told me then that he liked the nature of the races, with bunched fields and tight finishes. The betting public didn't seem to object - Keeneland with Polytrack set wagering records.

But Saturday's races in Lexington, Ky., underscored all that is wrong with the synthetic surface.

The track has been very fast since Keeneland opened a week ago, and a 2-year-old broke the world record for 4 1/2 furlongs Thursday. But even with a fast track underneath them, almost all horses come out of the gate running slowly.

Over such a quick racing surface, good horses will typically cover the first half-mile of a route race in 47 seconds or thereabouts. (The half-mile fraction in last week's Santa Anita Derby was 46.95 seconds. In Aqueduct's Wood Memorial, the time was 47.26.) Yet in almost every race at Keeneland - and particularly in the routes - the jockeys refuse to let their horses show speed. The half-mile fraction in a good-quality allowance race Saturday was 50.89 seconds; in a Grade 3 stakes race it was 50.10.

The front-runner in the Blue Grass field was Teuflesberg, a speedster capable of sprinting a half-mile in 45 seconds flat. He led through the first half-mile of the Blue Grass in 51.46 seconds - and even then nobody tried to challenge him in earnest. He reached the six-furlong mark in a preposterous 1:16.65.

"I've seen lines at the Post Office move faster," columnist Rick Bozich wrote in the Louisville Courier-Journal. Only when they turned into the stretch did the riders in the pack start asking their horses seriously. Strategically they were doing the right thing, because they knew front-runners rarely win at Keeneland. Even after setting such an extraordinarily slow pace, Teuflesberg couldn't hold the lead in the Blue Grass.

The 1 1/8-mile race was reduced to a quarter-mile dash to the wire involving five horses. Great Hunter was squeezed back in the congested field and lost his chance, but the other four were separated at the finish by one nose and two heads. When it was over, many racing fans pondered the outcome and asked what the Blue Grass told us about these horses and about the Kentucky Derby.

The answer is that it told us nothing. It has no relevance to a fast-paced Derby that will be run on traditional dirt. It didn't tell us whether Street Sense is a potential Thoroughbred star or whether Dominican is a worthy Kentucky Derby contender. What's the point of running a rich stakes race when it won't even reveal whether the horses are good or bad, fast or slow?

It is a mystery why Keeneland has been so aberrant. At other tracks that have installed artificial surfaces (such as Turfway Park and Woodbine), racing has been fairly normal. The early fractions of races have not been unusually slow, and the winners have been a fair mix of front-runners and stretch-runners. I asked Jim Pendergest, general manager of the company that manufactures Polytrack, to explain the Keeneland phenomenon. He said he had followed the 2006 races closely, and he concluded: "The jockeys had a lot to do with it. They expected a closers' track, so nobody wanted to go too fast. But after a horse or two won in front, they picked up the pace a little."

This spring they are not picking up the pace, but the jockeys' go-slow tactics are not the result of some misperception. They are adjusting to reality. When they see front-runners fade after setting a moderate pace or a slow pace, they conclude they should try to go even slower.

Keeneland is a partner of Martin Collins Surfaces and Footings, the firm that makes Polytrack, so its management is unlikely to acknowledge that the surface has produced a freaky style of racing. But several other U.S. tracks - including Arlington Park, Del Mar, and Santa Anita - will soon be using synthetic surfaces, and their operators should make sure they know what they are getting. They should hope not to get a mutant version of horse racing that penalizes Thoroughbreds for being fast.

(c) 2007 The Washington Post