12/27/2006 12:00AM

New surface, new angles


For horseplayers, the day after Christmas always means a lot more than a trek to a nearby department store to return gifts that Santa Claus didn't quite get right. For horseplayers it's never about Santa Claus; it's about Santa Anita.

As usual, the historic Southern California track opened on Dec. 26 for its 85-day meet that will run through April 2007. Yet, there is nothing else usual about this 2006-07 Santa Anita race meet.

For the first time, the SA meet will follow a Southern California meeting that was conducted on an artificial surface - the Cushion Track at Hollywood Park. As most horseplayers know, by the end of 2007, the four other major California tracks - Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows in the north, Del Mar and Santa Anita in the south - must join Hollywood in converting to artificial racing surfaces, eliminating traditional dirt.

Thus, horseplayers everywhere would do well to spend some time watching races at Santa Anita this winter to gain insight into a handful of important handicapping issues.

H Will Hollywood cushion form translate easily to Santa Anita dirt form?

H Will the form displayed on Cushion Track be a positive indicator for Santa Anita turf form? Incomplete data at Hollywood hinted this might be so, just as it did at Keeneland and Turfway Park in Kentucky, where artificial Polytrack has replaced their respective dirt tracks.

While I am presently studying all artificial racing surfaces in some detail and expect to learn a lot from the Santa Anita meet, this much seems true already.

Horses with a steady diet of moderately timed workouts on artificial tracks - especially at five furlongs or longer - apparently gain more conditioning and stamina compared to horses with much faster workouts on dirt racing surfaces. Thus, it seems likely that lightly raced horses, absentees, and first-time starters will be fitter when shipped from Hollywood Park to run over the usually glib Santa Anita dirt surface. It also seems likely that many of the trainers who have gained experience training and racing on artificial surfaces are likely to bring fit and ready horses to Santa Anita.

This group will include Todd Pletcher's Santa Anita string, which will be handled by an assistant at Hollywood while his New York suspension runs its course. Likewise, trainer Patrick Biancone, an expert on Polytrack training, will ship in with well-placed runners from Turfway Park throughout the meet.

I similarly expect to see improved performances at Santa Anita from horses that flashed speed before tiring In a Cushion Track race. Not only does speed tend to carry better at Santa Anita than it did on most days at Hollywood Park, but the effect may be increased for a horse turning back to its best distance from a longer Cushion Track race.

Likewise, the positive effect of a Cushion Track race may be just as potent for absentees. Such horses will gain stamina from a race over the artificial surface.

In other words, the usual "horses for courses" angle will have a new twist to it. Horses may really like the glib Santa Anita surface, but they will be even stronger if they come back to their favorite track after some Cushion Track training or racing experience.

There also may be some benefit in comparing basic post-position statistics gleaned from the recently concluded Hollywood Park meet compared to the 2005-06 meet at Santa Anita.

At Hollywood there were no reliable post-position trends worth worrying about for sprints on dirt, but in turf sprints, posts 10, 11, and 12 were a combined 1 for 18. At Santa Anita last year, posts 11 and 12 were a combined 1 for 28. This suggests that players should forgive poor performances from outside posts on the turf at Hollywood, while insisting upon high odds for otherwise well-spotted horses starting from the outside posts on the Santa Anita turf course - a course that twists in two directions during the downhill early furlongs.

In two-turn races on dirt and turf, there were unmistakable tendencies that may be useful when interpreting good and bad performances.

In dirt routes at Santa Anita last year, the inside four post positions had a decided statistical edge over any other group of four post positions and dwarfed the winning production of the outside four posts. Cumulatively, the inside four posts averaged about 16 percent winners from 224 cumulative starters, while the outer four posts won less than 7 percent from 107 cumulative starters.

Although there was no reliable post-position trend for Cushion Track routes at Hollywood, the same could not be said for Hollywood turf routes. While the inside eight post positions averaged about 12 percent winners each, posts 9 through 13 were only able to win four races from a combined 54 starters, a 7 percent clip.

Overall, the introduction of artificial racing surfaces at major tracks seems to have spooked players more than it should. Certainly horseplayers will need to gather new information, but it would be foolish to downplay the opportunities presented by a growing number of artificial surfaces.

Already, we know that Polytrack differs subtly from Cushion Track - just as the deep-rooted Fair Grounds turf course differs from the closely cropped Del Mar grass surface. Likewise, we know that many horses will handle a wide variety of turf courses, just as many will handle all the different artificial tracks and some who excel on firm turf will not handle a rain-softened course.

While the perfect racing surface does not exist, and there will be problems of consistency related to heat, cold, humidity, and overzealous track maintenance, the new boom in artificial racing surfaces seems to be good for the health of the running horse. Equally important, it may prove to be a potential bonanza for horseplayers willing to develop new handicapping notions that the general public is sure to miss.