07/16/2007 12:00AM

Maintaining Polytrack a learning experience


DEL MAR, Calif. - Del Mar's new Polytrack surface opened for training Thursday and generally received positive reviews its first few days. But on Monday, a change in the way the surface had been maintained had scores of trainers and several jockeys agitated, only 48 hours before Polytrack was scheduled to be unveiled for racing on Wednesday's opening-day card.

Trainers and jockeys said the surface was noticeably harder on Monday than it had been, and several trainers canceled some or all of the workouts they had planned for Monday. Later in the morning, trainers met with track management and representatives of Martin Collins, the firm that installed Polytrack earlier this year, for the first of what is supposed to be a regular schedule of conferences throughout the meet.

"We told the horsemen we were going to meet regularly as a committee as we go through the process and the procedures, and that we were going to tell them when and why we were going to do things," Craig Fravel, Del Mar's executive vice president, said Monday.

"Yesterday, in setting the track up for today, the teeth on the Gallop Masters were set higher than normal," Fravel said, referring to the equipment that grooms the track. "Then, because of the cooler weather we had last night, it was firmer than Sunday, when it was warm. What upset the horsemen was that we didn't tell them about it. That shouldn't have happened. But by no means was the track unsafe. It was just different from yesterday."

Fravel said the next meeting would be Thursday, following Wednesday's opening-day card. He said that the surface will now have one renovation break during the morning, at 7:30 a.m., and that the track will remain open for training until 10, four hours before the usual first post at Del Mar.

"We're going to have a few hiccups," Fravel said. "There is a learning curve. But it's still safe, and that's the most important thing."

Many trainers were of the belief that the less done to the track, the better. They were concerned that unnecessary tinkering would work against the benefits of Polytrack.

"It was perfect for three days, but it was way too firm this morning," trainer Jeff Mullins said Monday. "I canceled all of my works."

"They need to leave it alone - it gets better as the morning goes on," said Neil Drysdale, who worked a horse late Monday morning, when the fog began to lift and sun began to hit the surface. "My horse moved over it beautifully."

Del Mar installed Polytrack at a cost the track said was $9 million. Del Mar's old main track had been roundly criticized in recent years as increasingly unsafe, and a rash of fatal injuries to horses convinced track management to install a synthetic surface, even before such a move was mandated last year by the California Horse Racing Board.

"The last three days it was great, and then they messed with it," said jockey Brice Blanc, who has experience on Polytrack at Keeneland and Cushion Track at Hollywood Park. "It was a lot different today. A lot harder."

Blanc said Del Mar's surface felt much like Keeneland's Polytrack. "It's a heavier surface," he said. "Horses get more of a grip on it. That's why turf horses do so well. Cushion Track feels more like a conventional dirt surface.

"I liked the way this surface had felt. It's a big difference for horses coming from Santa Anita, and trainers coming from there need to understand that. It's going to take time to get used to it. Hopefully they can get it back like it was and we can have a really good summer."

Joe Harper, Del Mar's president, said a couple of trainers had said on Sunday that they believed the surface was too loose.

"The Martin Collins people thought the best thing to do was firm it up a little bit, but apparently that wasn't the thing to do," Harper said. "But I think what people have to realize is that hard Polytrack is not the same as hard dirt. Everybody's got to lighten up. It's still 10 times better than dirt. There's still rubber and cushioning in it. The important thing, though, is to keep the track consistent."

Among those who had expressed concern about the track on Sunday was Bob Baffert.

"It's hard to gauge horses on it," said Baffert, who had many of his horses at Santa Anita in recent months. "They have to get used to it, acclimate to the surface."