07/20/2008 11:00PM

A level playing field

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As stated here previously, handicapping success at Del Mar this year may depend upon the way players interpret Del Mar’s racing surfaces and how accurately one can spot trainers and jockeys who are in tune with the adjustments track officials have made to ensure a safe, but faster Polytrack.

With this in mind, some early trends have led to at least one clear-cut impression: The water being added to the main track this year is producing a multi-dimensional racing surface playing two to four full seconds faster than last year with greater balance among preferred running styles.

Last year, horses that rallied to take control of their respective contests entering the stretch were hard to pass, while pure front-runners often acted as if they needed an oxygen mask to complete the course. In other words, Del Mar’s decision to add measured doses of water to the synthetic racing surface already is making a huge difference in the way the main track is playing.

Indeed, several trends from Del Mar’s first five days confirm a quick reversal of the one-dimensional track bias we saw at Del Mar in 2007.

Consider these statistics.

Winning running styles for Del Mar sprints, July 16-20:

Including a dead heat in the ninth race on July 19, there were 21 winners in 20 sprint races on the main track during the first five racing days.

* Four were won by pure front-runners or by horses who were lapped on the leader after a quarter-mile had been run.

* Three additional pace-pressers won after racing within two lengths of the leader at the same early point of call.

* Six mid-pack closers won after settling into stride 2 1/2 to five lengths behind the leader.

* Eight horses won a main-track sprint after rallying from one of the last two spots in the field, or from more than five lengths behind the leader. One of these deep closers was part of the July 19 dead heat.

Jockeys who took advantage:

* The speed-type winners were ridden by Rafael Bejarano, Martin Garcia, and Pedro Arambula.

* Bejarano was aboard one of the three pace-pressing winners, while Victor Espinoza and Martin Pedroza were aboard the other two.

* Among six mid-pack closers, two were ridden by Jose Campos while Tyler Baze, Corey Nakatani, Russell Baze, and Joel Rosario rode one apiece.

* Two of the eight deep closers were ridden by Bejarano and two more by Joe Talamo. Otherwise, Richard Migliore, Brice Blanc, Julio Garcia, and Rosario won with one apiece.

Winning styles for Del Mar’s main track routes, with winning jockeys:

Of the nine main-track route races during the first five days, there were four winning speed types. Two were ridden by Aaron Gryder on July 18 while Baze also took a front-runner to the wire on that same card.

Michael Martinez won with the other front-running winner on opening day, a fact that underscores an incontrovertible change in Del Mar track conditions. After Del Mar showcased the slowest track in America in 2007, a track that also posed a strong anti-speed bias, several front-runners already have won on the 2008 Del Mar main track while a handful of track records have been set.

Two pace-pressers and three deep closers won the other five main-track routes. The pace-pressers were ridden by Espinoza and Bejarano, while Rosario rode two of the deep closers and Baze rode the other. Baze in fact, is steadily developing into one of the most reliable riders in Southern California. For most of this year he has been handling all types of running styles and different racing surfaces with nearly equal skill.

Winning styles for Del Mar turf sprints and routes, with jockeys:

On the turf, there were four sprints and 13 routes race winners, including a dead heat in a mile turf race on July 16.

Three of the four sprints were won by pace-pressers, with Bejarano, Baze, and Rosario aboard. Baze also rode a mid-pack closer to victory.

In the 12 different two-turn turf races at one mile and longer, the course played to a variety of running styles. This was somewhat different than Del Mar’s recent tendency to favor pace-pressers during the early weeks of the meet before a more pronounced speed tendency takes hold after the course wears down through repeated usage.

Two front-runners, two pace-pressers, one mid-pack closer, and eight deep closers won Del Mar’s turf routes during the first five days.

Baze rode both front-running winners, including one that shared an opening-day victory in a dead heat with a winning mid-pack closer ridden by Alonso Quinonez.

The two pace-pressing turf winners were ridden by Aaron Gryder and Migliore, while Gryder also rode one of the eight winning deep closers.

The prolific Bejarano, who won eight races to lead the Del Mar jockey standings, and the rejuvenated Espinoza also rode two stretch-running turf winners apiece. Pedroza, Mike Smith, and Blanc scored with the other deep closers.

Somewhat surprisingly, jockey Garrett Gomez, the reigning Eclipse Award winner, was shut out during Del Mar’s first five days, although he did have seven in-the-money finishes. Shed no tears for Mr. Gomez.

On Saturday he was at Colonial Downs using all his skills to narrowly win the $750,000 Virginia Derby aboard Gio Ponti for trainer Christophe Clement. No stranger to Del Mar, Clement is likely to ship some of his leading turf horses here later in the meet.

As for the need to make quick assessments on locally based trainers who are ready to run, Mike Mitchell certainly fills the bill.

Continuing where he left off at Hollywood, Mitchell won five races from 15 attempts through Sunday, including the Grade 1, $400,000 Eddie Read Handicap on Sunday with the rapidly improving 4-year-old Monzante. Patiently ridden by Bejarano. Monzante fired an impressive last-to-first rally down the stretch to win as much the best.

Trainer Peter Miller also is in good form. Miller began the 2008 meet with three wins from his first seven starters, almost replicating the way he began the 2007 Del Mar season. Likewise, trainer Doug O’Neill, a perennial force on this circuit, also hinted at the strength of his barn, winning two on Sunday for three quick wins during the first five days.

Beyond the stats and early season patterns, there was at least one intriguing maiden race for 2-year-old fillies that filled some space in my notebook – the fourth at 5 1/2 furlongs on July 20.

Stardom Bound, a strongly built daughter of 2004 Wood Memorial winner Tapit trained by Christopher Pasch, practically was left at the post and yet missed by only a nose to the Ron McAnally-trained Turtle Creek Babe. Third-place finisher Montana Fields, trained by Bob Baffert, also made a favorable impression in a race that seemed loaded with potential stakes prospects.