07/11/2010 11:00PM

A little homework goes a long way at these meets


It is no real news to suggest that many thousands of horseplayers tell time by the annual Saratoga and Del Mar race meets. For the most part, players in the East tend to focus on Saratoga's rich stakes schedule and bevy of 2-year-old races, while Western-based players think about possible visits to Del Mar, one of America's most beautiful racing venues.

Del Mar, located about 15 miles north of San Diego and barely a furlong away from the Pacific Ocean, will open next Wednesday and operate five days a week through Sept. 8. Del Mar raced six days a week until last year, when Mondays were dropped in an effort to keep field size up.

Saratoga, nestled in the Adirondack Mountains about 160 miles north of New York City, has been open since the Civil War and traditionally draws hundreds of horses from several Eastern and Midwestern tracks. This year, Saratoga will open on Friday, July 23 and run six days a week for 40 racing dates through Monday, Labor Day, Sept. 6. The track will be dark on Tuesdays.

With Del Mar dark on Mondays and Tuesdays, there will be 37 racing dates. Del Mar, which has its own rich schedule of stakes and dozens of races for 2-year-olds, is increasing purses for cheaper claiming races, while cutting higher-class maiden and allowance races $1,000-$2,000 apiece.

Saratoga also has some concerns about losing horses, as Monmouth Park's $1 million in average daily purses for its Friday, Saturday and Sunday schedule through Labor Day exceeds Saratoga's daily average purse structure by about $250,000. If the actual impact on the Saratoga horse population turns out to be more than a few horses each week, the New York Racing Association might regret not following Del Mar's lead and shortening to five days a week.

Beyond these concerns and other uncertainties plaguing racing in New York and California, horseplayers look to these two meets as golden opportunities to play the game at the highest level.

In my own case, Saratoga is a personal Mecca, a meet I have missed only once since my first trip to any track in 1960. Having discovered the pleasures of Del Mar rather late in my career, in 1985, I nevertheless will be making my 26th annual Del Mar visit in 2010. In other words I play both tracks from afar and as close as I can get for as many days as I can get there.

To win at Saratoga, a player must come to grips with patterns that have persisted for decades. For one important example, should it not rain significantly during the first two weeks of the meet, players should expect the Saratoga main track to be several points fast and favoring inside speed. That trend could continue throughout much of the summer.

Should heavy rains occur early in the meet, players should anticipate that the track will soften up just enough to be less prone to a one-dimensional inside speed bias during the rest of the meet.

Otherwise, a select group of trainers can be counted upon to do well at Saratoga, including the ubiquitous Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen, both of whom have barns filled with stakes horses and promising 2-year-olds. For one example, Pletcher has a Saratoga stakes picked out for Stopspendngmaria, a filly who improved sharply to dominate a July 1 maiden race at Belmont after a fair Monmouth Park debut. Asmussen likewise has Kantharos, winner of the Bashford Manor Stakes at Churchill July 3, pointing for the Hopeful at the end of the meet. In the meantime both trainers have plans to unveil several other promising juveniles in maiden races during the first few weeks.

Shug McGaughey invariably unveils a top-notch 2-year-old from the Phipps stable here, while Rick Violette has a strong winning record with Saratoga first-time starters. Likewise, Rick and Anthony Dutrow have been scoring with a high percentage of Saratoga winners in recent seasons, as have Michael Hushion, Saeed bin Suroor, Michael Maker, Wesley Ward and George Weaver.

Nick Zito and Kiaran McLaughlin tend to focus their high-class 3-year-olds towards Saratoga's well-placed stakes and allowance races. Christophe Clement, Billy Mott, Barclay Tagg and Graham Motion annually win more than their share of Saratoga turf routes, and Linda Rice - who led the Saratoga standings last year -is a certifiable ace with turf sprinters.

At Del Mar, we have learned the hard way that the Polytrack that replaced the dirt racing surface in 2007 requires regular dousings of water to prevent the wax polymers in the surface from melting in the hot afternoon sun. Without regular watering, the track becomes sticky and much slower than usual. That alone can turn form upside down. With normal watering, the synthetic main track generally will favor stalkers from the outside, but it would be a mistake to eliminate front-runners and deep closers at any distance on a normally manicured Del Mar main track.

The Del Mar turf course also can produce winners from off the pace, but the overall tendency is to prefer those with sufficient speed to race on or near the lead. This is true at any turf distance, and the trend towards speed on the grass invariably intensifies after some wear and tear begins to impact the course midway through the meet.

Here, too, there are a select group of trainers who seem to point for Del Mar.

Bob Baffert, a perennial meet leader during the pre-Polytrack era, apparently has adjusted his training methods and is reportedly loaded with good 2-year-olds this summer, including D'pendable, a promising winner of a maiden race at Hollywood on July 4. Among his large group of good juveniles, Baffert has a strong-looking colt in Rock So Hard and a promising filly in Sparkling Style.

Doug O'Neill, who did not turn over his stable to an assistant and gave his entire stable a rest in early July while he served a 15-day medication suspension, is expected to be ready for a strong Del Mar meet. Jerry Hollendorfer also has his stable ready for Del Mar and Peter Miller has made a habit of winning early season races here.

John Sadler's newly acquired 2-year-old filly Dawnie Macho won the Landaluce Stakes on Sunday, and she might come right back in the Sorrento stakes on Aug. 6, when she may meet Izshelegal, the Terry Knight-trained maiden daughter of Maria's Mon who closed so strongly for second in the Landaluce as a first-time starter.

James Cassidy, who wins his share of races here and is especially effective with turf horses, now has The Usual Q.T. back in top form and pointing for the Grade 1, $300,000 Eddie Read stakes at nine furlongs on turf July 24.

When talented trainers repeatedly win a high percentage of races at a specific meet, it is only common sense to be ready the next time they show up with rested horses or horses who may have had a good prep race three to five weeks out.

* Steve Davidowitz will be at Canterbury Park on Claiming Crown Day, July 24, and Arlington Park on July 31 for handicapping seminars and book signings for his recently revised and updated "Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st century."