03/05/2007 12:00AM

Learning from each other

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The 2007 Horseplayers Expo was the seventh gathering of horseplayers and professional handicappers since handicapper-author James Quinn created the concept in 1983. By all indications it was the best.

Not only was Wynn-Las Vegas a spectacular, classy venue to host this event, but the various seminars and conferences went without a hitch from the first to the last session.

Beyond the fact that dozens of attendees were effusive in their praise for the presentations, Horseplayers Expo was not a one-sided affair. It never is.

All the speakers and panelists, myself included, were in a learning laboratory as we made our various presentations and traded pointed questions amongst each other and with serious-minded players who were there for one reason: to advance their game.

A single question - one of many raised during the panel on "Interpreting Workouts" - certainly illustrates how this dynamic played out for all concerned:

"How does Todd Pletcher win so many races with first-time starters when many of his most impressive winners work in 1:02 breezing, with no real signs of speed in the workout line?"

Clocker/handicapper Toby Callet of Florida pointed out that the final time obviously is not important to Pletcher, "It is the way the horse does its work," particularly the way he finishes, Callet said.

"Actually I am not impressed by fast workouts, unless I know the horse finished strongly, or outworked another horse in company. "Most of the time," he continued, "the actual clocking is the least important part" of a good workout.

"Very fast workouts - especially with cheaper horses - only attract money from the crowd, which is not what I'm looking for to make a bet."

All the panelists stressed the importance of the pattern of workouts, the frequency, the different distances and spacing between each work as they relate to a series of works. While there is no single winning pattern to identify a fit first-time starter, there are "tells" and common denominators that each trainer tends to rely upon to prepare his newcomers and absentees. The job of the horseplayer is to find the tells of individual trainers by scrutinizing the workout lines of several winning first-time starters and successful layoff types.

On that same panel, two-time Breeders' Cup-winning trainer Michael Dickinson said his own horses gain important conditioning by working uphill on his Tapeta Farm in Maryland where he has used his patented artificial surface for several years.

"They may be going much slower than they would on a flat track but they are getting stronger and suffer less stress," Dickinson said.

Dickinson also appeared on the panel dealing with handicapping synthetic surfaces. Golden Gate Fields plans to replace it's dirt track with Dickinson's Tapeta surface this summer.

Dickinson made some compelling points that stunned those sharing the dais with him as well as the packed auditorium.

"We lose about 750 horses every year," he said, "That's about two every day in America."

Underscoring this dramatic statement, Dickinson pointed out that we also have more than 60 jockeys and exercise riders currently dealing with catastrophic injures suffered from breakdowns on the track and in the mornings.

Dickinson blamed these disturbing facts on the modern accent to breed and train for speed over endurance and the use of anabolic steroids to bulk horses up for a quick return in the sales ring and on the racetrack. He even admitted that he uses steroids on some of his own horses "just to remain competitive" with other trainers who are using them promiscuously while they remain legal for racing purposes.

Dickinson also blamed the carnage on hard dirt tracks that jar horses into unsoundness during morning workouts and fast-paced races.

"We are in a crisis that must be solved," Dickinson warned and vowed his commitment to work behind the scenes to help rid the game of steroids while pushing for more artificial racing surfaces.

Dickinson said there would be benefits to horseplayers via "more formful races . . . more starts per horse during their careers . . . and larger fields per race." But Dickinson also said that subtle differences exist between his Tapeta track and all the other artificial surfaces, differences that will require horseplayers to take note whether a horse can transfer its good form on one artificial track to another.

Some growing pains are sure to occur as tracks fine tune the ratio of fibers to wax and other ingredients in these surfaces that must cope with a wide variety of temperatures and humidity in different regions. To keep the surfaces playing fair for all concerned, Dickinson also said that track superintendents should lean on minimal maintenance, rather than radical intervention.

DRF's Southern California-based handicapper, Brad Free, and Mike Maloney, a Kentucky-based professional player of the highest magnitude, provided some statistics that suggested changes have occurred in the track profiles for Hollywood Park and Keeneland, which conducted their first meets on artificial tracks last fall.

In route races at Keeneland, Maloney said, the win percentage for front-runners was "dramatically lower" than any recent Keeneland meet. Free said that his stats for Hollywood confirmed slower-paced races, without much radical change, but the winning margins were smaller and the Beyer Speed Figures were slightly below usual standards for the class and distances involved. This information, although not definitive, confirmed some of my own observations which suggest that the pattern of races on artificial tracks more closely resembles the way turf races are run compared with traditional dirt.

Obviously any player intent upon attacking Keeneland and/or Hollywood races this spring will be best served by expecting race shapes in routes that will tax the staying power of front-runners.

Moderator Steve Crist predicted that this trend might be altered slightly over time, just as Dickinson predicted that dirt horses will adapt very well to artificial surfaces, perhaps even more than turf horses despite current trends.

Free recalled a conversation he had with the top jockey Garret Gomez after a race last fall. Gomez said that he flinched when a clod of dirt was kicked back to his face, as it so often is in dirt races, but this time, as Gomez was riding the Cushion Track at Hollywood, the clod just burst apart into dust before it hit him.

Picking up on this, Dickinson said this is one reason why turf horses are running so well on the artificial surfaces. In the past they didn't like getting hit by dirt clods, but now there are very few instances when these clods actually bother them.

Most players, myself included, believe we are in an experimental stage dealing with these new surfaces. Thus it makes sense to take notes, compile stats, and see what actually does occur as Keeneland goes through its important spring meet with Polytrack while all the major California tracks complete construction of their new surfaces through the rest of the year.

All this was but a brief glimpse into one aspect of Expo, which personally benefited me as much as anyone in the audience. It is only a sampling of dozens of incredibly interesting exchanges of information and insight that was freely shared by all in attendance. I can't wait to see the DVD's.