07/17/2007 11:00PM

Learning from Poly's past


With the opening of Del Mar on Wednesday, July 18, California's synthetic track adventure is taking a major leap forward - into the unknown.

Del Mar horsemen are ready to support the newly installed Polytrack with larger fields than we have seen in recent years, and the rich stakes schedule is brimming with 42 attractive events. But, caution flags for horseplayers are flying all over the place.

This trepidation comes from what has been observed so far at the five other American tracks with synthetic surfaces (Turfway Park, Woodbine, Keeneland, Hollywood Park and Arlington Park), where seismic shifts in fundamental handicapping have occurred.

At Keeneland in Kentucky last fall, the traditional domination by early speedsters on the inside rail path was nearly reversed, while less potent accents toward speed were muted at other synthetic tracks.

We also have seen that good form on dirt, or even good form established on other synthetic tracks, has not necessarily translated to other synthetic tracks. Indeed, many frustrated horseplayers and professional commentators have noted that each synthetic track has had its peculiarities and maintenance issues, which has affected the way races were run or the way horses performed over these surfaces.

Just a few weeks ago, the warm Southern California sun melted the wax that helps bind together the loose mixture of sand, rubberized fibers and other minute materials that make up Hollywood's synthetic Cushion Track. This forced extreme measures to keep the surface together, while contributing to a series of radical form reversals.

Although it is premature to lay out a road map to handicap races on the Del Mar Polytrack - especially before we have sufficient races to review - a handful of trends have been observed at the other synthetic tracks that may prove useful to handicappers as they keep their eyes peeled for reality-based Del Mar facts.

When a synthetic track is set up to perform within its normal range, it tends to produce much slower early fractions and slightly slower final times. (This tendency is exacerbated by the tendency of many jockeys to restrain their horses early to play to the apparent stretch-running bias of these synthetic surfaces.)

While dominant early speed may be dangerous in any race on any surface, it is more expendable than usual on synthetic tracks at all distances. Moreover, statistics garnered from every synthetic track in America suggest that early speed is only marginally effective in route races.

Stating this in slightly different terms, a minimally maintained, well-balanced synthetic track is a racing surface in which stamina tends to trump sheer early speed. This fact should raise a caution flag to traditional pace handicappers, who tend to look for horses with a front-running or pace- pressing advantage for their best bets.

Horses with turf form or strong turf pedigrees seem to handle synthetic tracks better than standard dirt tracks.

This is not myth. The trend has been observed at every synthetic track to date. One possible reason for this has been linked to the way the kickback of synthetic soil tends to dissipate in mid-air instead of forming clods of dirt balls that can hurt or intimidate horses running in traffic. The lighter kickback is similar to the absence of kickback on turf courses.

Trainers who have shown a successful winning profile on synthetic surfaces seem to carry their success to other synthetic surfaces. This is equally true for jockeys who have patient or versatile riding styles. Apparently, those trainers and jockeys who have been paying attention to the types of training drills or performance characteristics that win races on synthetic tracks are applying their insights at other synthetic tracks.

Translating some additional observations to handicapping, I have found it productive to look very carefully at horses with solid finishing splits, or at least an even type of running style. Likewise, horses turning back in distance and dropping a notch in class are frequently outperforming their odds, while horses switching from a higher class and a longer race on the turf are difficult to ignore, even at modest odds.

Some sires are proving to be synthetic track sires just as some sires are prepotent turf sires. A partial list of these sires compiled first by Arlington Park handicapper Joe Kristufek points out sires with progeny that are winning their first synthetic track attempts at a healthy 17 to 30 percent clip.

Kristufek's list included such familiar sires as Belong to Me, Chester House, Chief Seattle, El Corredor, Favorite Trick, Hennessy, Honour and Glory, Mr. Greeley, Rubiano, Seeking the Gold, Smart Strike, Stormy Atlantic, Skip Away, and Slew City Slew. Most but not all also are considered strong turf sires.

Built specifically to provide safe, springy surfaces that require minimal track maintenance, synthetic tracks can be drastically altered by the track superintendent to deal with weather-related dilemmas. Aside from those instances when absolutely necessary, the old practice of tightening a traditional dirt surface to produce extremely fast clockings on a Saturday or holiday can unfairly alter the delicate handicapping equation for synthetic-track races. This practice will require monitoring by the Del Mar stewards on behalf of horseplayers, as much as for the avowed safety for horses and jockeys.

Beyond Del Mar's spectacular seaside ambience, beyond the rich stakes schedule and the large numbers of well-bred 2-year-olds that will be seen here this summer, horseplayers who pay attention to what really happens at Del Mar will have a significant edge over casual players and players who remain stuck in the mud of previous handicapping approaches.

At the bottom line, I would expect a significant proportion of longshot winners on the synthetic Del Mar track this summer, all of which may be good for players willing to take a few leaps of faith away from horses with seductively positive dirt form or meaningless 2006 Del Mar histories. At the same time, there will be plenty of turf racing over the seaside course that ironically tends to play well to speed types and pace pressers, more so than most grass courses and probably more than the new synthetic track.

* Steve Davidowitz will host a handicapping seminar in front of the Del Mar grandstand at 12:30 p.m., Saturday, July 21, followed by a book signing session at the Del Mar gift shop for his new book, "The Best and Worst of Thoroughbred Racing,"published by DRF Press.