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New surface, new questions
Freaked out about the first Polytrack meet in California? You are not alone.
Trepidation always accompanies the start of a new race meet, when a change in venue can generate form reversals and overlay payoffs.
The most extreme change to the Southern California routine occurs when the circuit relocates to Del Mar, the coastal resort 100 miles south of Los Angeles. Tucked beside the Pacific, Del Mar reputedly is a good place to find a parimutuel jackpot.
Even before synthetic surfaces, the seven-week Del Mar meet had its fair share of built-in chaos. Horses woke up in the invigorating ocean air, fresh claimers dropped in, European shippers arrived for turf, and there was always a crop of rookie 2-year-olds with bare-bones past performances.
The summer racing season was further complicated by the ever-present track bias. Blame it on the tides. But then the main track changed, from a front-runner's dream to a surface that promoted rally-wide closers. Attentive handicappers in tune to the shifting dynamics could find order in the chaos.
In recent years however, Del Mar got tame. Maintenance procedures were standardized, and the dirt track mirrored speed-friendly Santa Anita. The stream of European shippers slowed to a trickle, maiden 2-year-olds grew more predictable, and Del Mar became a mere summer extension of Santa Anita and Hollywood Park.
All of which brings horseplayers to the 2007 Del Mar meet, a 43-day season of chance. At very least, bettors might welcome the return of chaos. The reason: Del Mar removed its dirt track, reduced banking on the turns, and installed Polytrack, the synthetic footing used at Keeneland and Arlington. This summer is the first Polytrack meet in California.
What to expect?
"I don't think anybody really knows," trainer Marty Jones said. "It's going to be a learning experience, for horsemen and handicappers."
Nearly three-quarters of the Del Mar races are run on the main track, about 270 overall. Chaos or otherwise, Polytrack is not likely to generate the same high rate of winning favorites as the last two seasons on dirt. In 2006, main-track chalk won 35 percent of the races; main-track favorites in 2005 won at a 38-percent rate.
The new Del Mar surface is the biggest change to the Southern California circuit since the fall, when Hollywood became the first California track to conduct a meet on synthetic surface. The Cushion Track at Hollywood, it turns out, is a reasonably unbiased surface that resembles dirt in both speed and appearance. The main difference between Cushion and dirt is the increased movement of horses from the back of the pack on synthetic surface. Closers frequently win, and contested speed is up against it.
Front-runners do still win on Cushion at Hollywood, where the main track is banked at 6 percent through the turns. Yet there is a feeling that Polytrack at Del Mar could be quicksand for speed. It is pure conjecture, since not a single race has yet been run over the light-colored surface. The idea is based on simple physics.
Del Mar has radically altered its track configuration, specifically the banking percentage on both turns has been reduced to a mere 3 percent. This is in sharp contrast to previous Del Mar banking of 4 to 4.5 percent.
The reduced banking means closers do not "run uphill" when they swing wide and launch their rally. On a track with 6-percent banking (such as Hollywood's), come-from-behind horses fight gravity when they move out and rally around. Late-runners will face less of a climb on Del Mar turns banked at 3 percent.
In an interview early this year, jockey Garrett Gomez described how banking affects the chances of a closer.
"When you try to swing out, you're fighting gravity," he said. "You're trying to get out of the hole; you're trying to swing out over the top. So it's harder to get out off the fence. You're trying to maneuver your way out, and your horse wants to go in."
Less banking means less gravitational pull. Del Mar vice president of racing Tom Robbins explained the reason for reduced banking on Polytrack, which has a vertical drainage system.
"Our goal was to get as flat as we can in the straightaway," he said. "The more bank on the turn, the less [bank in the stretch]. You canOt go from 5- or 6-percent banking to zero percent."
According to Robbins, the Polytrack surfaces at Keeneland and Arlington are banked at 4 percent; Polytrack at Turfway Park has 2.5-percent banking. "We're a little lighter than the others," Robbins said.
The reduced banking can change pace dynamics. On a track banked at 6 percent, a front-running sprinter can scream into the turn and allow gravity to prevent him from drifting wide. With less banking, there is less gravitational "protection" for speed. Furthermore, Polytrack is believed to be a slower, more demanding surface than traditional dirt.
"If you go 21-and-1, you're going to run last," trainer Bob Baffert said. "You're going to have to go 22-and-change. The jockeys will have to learn how to ride it, and they will have to go slower" because of the reduced banking.
Horsemen are adjusting, too. At Hollywood, Vladimir Cerin has changed his training routine. "My works are a little longer, a littler slow, and I've asked my horses to finish," he said. "On the old dirt tracks, you had to go fast early because once you made the lead you were on a conveyor belt."
That was not the case on Cushion Track. And it is not likely to be the case on Polytrack at Del Mar, where the new surface poses a dilemma for front-runners. If they go too fast, they risk severe drift on the turn. If speed horses go too slow, then their advantage could be negated. Everything is changing.
"I don't know what the [Del Mar] track will be like, or how hard you can train," Cerin said.
If the new Polytrack surface at Del Mar plays anything like the new Polytrack surface played at Keeneland when that track held its first synthetic-surface meet last fall, most races will be won by closers. In fall 2006 at Keeneland, the first-call leader was 1 for 26 at six furlongs, and 0 for 12 at 6 1/2 furlongs. Around two turns, only one of the 35 route races was won by the first-call leader.
Although no two synthetic surfaces are alike, it is entirely possible Del Mar will be a dream for closers. The first few days of the meet will be particularly troublesome. The new track was not scheduled to open for training until less than a week before the start of the meet. Many horses that run early in the meet will not have breezed over the track.
This poses an early-season dilemma for horsemen and bettors because it eliminates an indicator of possible improvement. A sharp work at the start of a meet often precludes an improved racing performance. Without a workout over the surface, or a race, uncertainty increases.
"I wish you could train on it for a couple weeks to get a handle on it," said Baffert in a sentiment that trainer Mike Mitchell shares.
"I won't have any problem galloping horses over the track, but I'm not going to breeze anything [right away]," Mitchell said.
While there is uncertainty over the way horses will handle Polytrack, or what biases will emerge, Baffert accepts the idea that cheap speed will be at a disadvantage.
"If you have a horse that can only go 5 1/2 or six furlongs, and you run 6 1/2 Ð forget about it," he said. "On dirt, you can get away with [running a horse beyond his limitations]. On Polytrack, it's not going to happen."
Evaluating current condition at the start of Del Mar will be tough. In the past, comeback horses who trained at Santa Anita generally reproduced form on the similar surface at Del Mar. This year, the opposite may hold true. Races and workouts on Cushion Track at Hollywood might be a more accurate predictor of Polytrack form than races and works on dirt at Santa Anita, or dirt tracks in Northern California.
Handicappers will adjust, by emphasizing factors such as class and trainer, and preparing for early-season upsets as overbet front-runners falter. A shotgun wagering approach is recommended, rather than cold-punching or singling a "sure winner." On Polytrack, there might not be such thing. It will take days or weeks for the surface to settle and for form to become established. As for upset winners, perhaps they will not be entirely unpredictable.
Class is always a factor, particularly on turf and synthetic. Overmatched horses simply do not win often -- $10,000 claimers rarely win $20,000 claiming races. The main-track winners, even overlays, will have been competitive at or above the level they compete at Del Mar. And the Del Mar purses are sufficiently high so that large stables will drop and win. Mitchell is a good example -- 6 of his 12 winners last summer were droppers.
Current-form evaluation will be problematic the first weeks of the meet. There will be much experimentation; many horses may not be cranked for an all-out effort in their initial Polytrack start. But after one spin over the track, many horses will improve.
A developing story will be the translation of morning workouts to afternoon race performance. It is always a dilemma at Del Mar, where the condition of the track during cool, overcast mornings often does not resemble the condition of the track in the afternoon sun.
Polytrack does not alleviate the worry. The new surface has a tendency to be tight in the morning and loose in the afternoon. Adjustments will be made. Del Mar was scheduled to add wax to the new surface even before the meet began. The goal was to make the track as consistent as possible, all day. It is not easy -- training begins before dawn, first post is 2 p.m.
Furthermore, the final times of the races may speed up as the meet progresses. Horses will become increasingly familiar with the track surface, and their form will improve. And the surface itself may tighten up.
Fundamental class analysis applies. Most claiming, allowance, and stakes winners on Polytrack will have been competitive at or above the level. Many will come from productive stables. Last year, the top 10 trainers won one-third of the races. Regardless of surface, the best horses still win the simple majority of races.
The same trainers that win on dirt at Santa Anita and Cushion Track at Hollywood will continue winning on Polytrack at Del Mar. Doug O'Neill will start more horses and win more races, although his starters are routinely overbet. Jeff Mullins, John Sadler, Baffert, and Mitchell will rank among the leaders. On turf, Neil Drysdale and Bobby Frankel typically lead the way at Del Mar.
The grim, steep economics of ownership in California is such that few stables can afford to hold back at Hollywood to point to Del Mar, despite higher purses. Mitchell is expected to pass Farrell Jones and move into second on the all-time list for wins by a trainer at Del Mar this summer (Mitchell had 365 wins at the start of the meet, Jones 374), but Mitchell stayed active as Hollywood was winding down. "If my horses are right, I'm running them," he said.
Jeff Mullins also was not holding back for Del Mar. He preferred to find spots to run at Hollywood.
"I'm going to run here because I know how they're going to run here," he said from Hollywood. "You don't really know how your horses are going to handle the new track [at Del Mar], or what style you're going to need."
The run-now philosophy applies mainly to claiming races, while a few trainers do aim higher-class stock specifically for late summer, including Baffert and Bruce Headley. Neither trainer was particularly active at Hollywood, and both are expected to come out firing at Del Mar.
A foundation of the Del Mar racing program is 2-year-olds. There are eight stakes for juveniles, including two end-of-the-meet Grade 1 races at seven furlongs -- the Debutante for fillies Sept. 3 and the Futurity on closing day, Sept. 5. Since 1995, Baffert has won the Debutante six times, the Futurity seven times.
Central to the Baffert operation is younger horses, and at Del Mar the pressure is on. This is where Baffert unveils his best 2-year-olds. Two of his top prospects this summer are by first-crop stallion Vindication. The colt Maimonides cost $4.6 million; the filly More Happy cost $1 million. Both have shown promise working on dirt and Cushion Track. Will they be ready for Polytrack?
"It's going to be very important for a 2-year-old to have had an out," Baffert said. "On dirt and Cushion Track you can jam them a little more. Polytrack is more demanding. I think second time out [will be better] unless it is just an exceptional horse."
Experience counts in juvenile maiden sprints on any surface, as the 21 juvenile special-weight races last summer (including Cal-breds) illustrate. There were 122 firsters that won 10 races; the 78 experienced maidens won 11 races. And as the distances increased, 2-year-old rookies won fewer yet. Only two races beyond 5 1/2 furlongs were won by first-time starters.
The handicap division in California remains stagnant. Lava Man will try for a repeat win Aug. 19 in the $1 million Pacific Classic. By then, Arson Squad and Buzzards Bay will have had a race over Polytrack. They run July 21 in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap. Neither has won a Grade 1, but when they meet Lava Man, they will have something the venerable gelding does not -- a race over the Polytrack surface.
Ultimately, the race-over-the-track factor may emerge as the key handicapping factor. In a sense, that is similar to years past. Del Mar has always been a horse-for-course track because of its seaside locale and midsummer schedule.
Horseplayers can expect a number of turf runners switching to Polytrack. According to data from handicapper Joe Takach, turf-to-Cushion runners at Hollywood won 100 races from 672 starts (through early July), a relatively high 14.8 percent win rate.
The racing program at Del Mar has always been heavy on grass racing, and turf specialists rarely bothered racing on the main track. However, the advent of Polytrack could sway horsemen to experiment by running grass horses on the new surface. It is yet one more potential trap for horseplayers to prepare for.
If the main track at Del Mar is a mystery going into the meet, there is always grass racing. The timing of the two main Grade 1 turf races of summer precludes the top grass runners from participating. The Eddie Read on July 22 will be without division leader The Tin Man, who will wait for the Arlington Million three weeks later. The John C. Mabee for fillies and mares is Aug. 4, a week before Citronnade is to run in the Beverly D. at Arlington.
Absent division leaders, class analysis for the Read and Mabee must be relaxed. A Grade 2-caliber turf runner may be good enough. A new grass race to the summer schedule is the Grade 2 Del Mar Mile on Aug. 19. The one-mile turf race will feature the second-tier group of turf horses, although rapidly improving Crossing the Line looks like a potential star.
The number of horses stabled at Del Mar has been reduced by "a couple hundred" to 2,100, according to Robbins, Del Mar's vice president of racing. He said outside pens have been scaled back because of fire-marshal concerns, and "we want this [new] track to have the best possible opportunity to succeed" by reducing traffic.
There will be new faces among trainers. Dale Romans and Cody Autrey are expected to have Del Mar stables.
The jockey hierarchy has undergone revision. Michael Baze and Joe Talamo have emerged as the circuit's top riders. Talamo was to end his apprenticeship in late July, but an extension will allow him to claim the five-pound allowance into August. A successful start is crucial for Talamo, who has never ridden at Del Mar.
Will there be boxcar payouts this summer at Del Mar? One can only hope.
And even though the surface is new, the theme is familiar. Baffert summed up Polytrack: "It's going to be the same old story -- people that win are going to love it, and people that don't win are going to hate it."