08/30/2006 12:00AM

New track, new game for bettor

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Like many serious handicappers, I have mixed feelings about Polytrack coming to Woodbine

Polytrack, a synthetic surface with a cushiony feel to it, has been used successfully in England for a decade. After it was installed at Turfway Park last year, the number of catastrophic breakdowns at that northern Kentucky track dropped significantly.

As a horse owner, I love that Polytrack is easier on runners compared to the old main track at Woodbine, which took its toll on the horse population whenever it got dry and loose during a drought.

Polytrack, however, has proven to be an unbiased surface. Keeping tabs on how the track is playing is an important part of the handicapping puzzle, and the level playing field that Polytrack provides takes away the edge that trip handicappers possess. Those who study replays and take notes on how the track plays will no longer be able to factor in who ran with and against the bias in their handicapping.

"Polytrack is a unique surface," said Dave Gutfreund, who makes selections for Woodbine's HPI TV. "It is not grass, nor is it dirt. It is a stand-alone type of track that some horses will take to better than others. With Polytrack being added at tracks around North America rapidly, a handicapper must rate the abilities of each horse on three surfaces, instead of the two that we have become used to."

Byron King, a Daily Racing Form Kentucky handicapper, said he prefers dirt horses over grass specialists on Polytrack.

"Many people believe turf horses handle it, and those with turf pedigrees," King said. "While they might handle it better than a traditional dirt track, I'd still rather play dirt horses on it. Everyone tries to make a Polytrack horse out of a turf horse. It just doesn't always work. I'd rather bet against them and go for a dirt horse."

King said he believes that some horses got discouraged from the snow-like kickback of Turfway's Polytrack. Judging from workouts earlier this week, the kickback from Woodbine's Polytrack appears to be minimal.

"It doesn't seem to have anywhere near the kickback that they had at Turfway," said trainer Ian Howard.

Former Kentucky trainer Mark Casse, who is second in the Woodbine standings, sent out Seaside Retreat to a second-place finish in the Grade 2 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway in March. He said he plans to run a specific type of grass expert on Polytrack.

"I think some turf horses are going to enjoy it more than others," Casse said. "In my opinion, there are two types of turf horses - those who clip along the turf, and those who have a higher action. The ones with the higher action are going to like the Polytrack. A horse like Seaside Retreat will get a hold of it, but he struggles a little over a cuppy track."

Lawyer Ron, one of North America's top 3-year-olds, is one example of a horse who struggled over Polytrack before finding his niche this year on the dirt. Although Casse believes that not all horses will like Polytrack, he said he thinks Lawyer Ron was an isolated case.

"I think it would be interesting to see Lawyer Ron run on the Polytrack again," Casse said. "I think he'd run pretty good. We've all seen horses who start winning when they get good. I've had horses run good all of the sudden, and I won't have a good explanation as to why."

Casse said the consistency of Polytrack is one of its most important assets.

"Nothing is harder on horses than when they run five-eighths in 57, and then they go in 58 or 59 the next day," Casse said. "When the conditions change, they use different muscles.

"From a betting standpoint, I think it changes their past performances dramatically," he said. "To me, that's not good for anybody. That's one of the reasons I left Kentucky, where they race year-round. You go to four or five different tracks, and none of them were alike. It was tough to get a horse to run consistently. Horses don't run as fast on Polytrack, but they get a firm grip of it. It's going to keep them sounder. It might even help some bad-footed horses, whose feet tend to sting on the dirt."