07/01/2007 11:00PM

Not all tracks created equal


Having traveled to 12 different racetracks in every corner of the country during the past three months, here are some observations and impressions that may prove useful at the betting windows.

The four-day carryover at Hollywood Park that produced a record $3.2 million carryover for last Monday was a result of a perfect storm of negative factors.

In addition to Hollywood's stakes events which rarely attract large fields, the quality of racing has been compressed downward to include many inscrutable, low-level claiming races with oversized fields.

As stated here last week, Hollywood's synthetic Cushion Track lacks sufficient wax and this has turned numerous races into a form of roulette on horseback. It also is darkening the form of some horses who ran poorly over it - including a few that have already came back to run sharply at long odds. These form reversals included some horses who shifted to the grass course.

Beyond carryovers and track maintenance issues, the Hollywood jockey colony is providing a pair of very young riders with a forum for national attention. Apprentice Joe Talamo, 17, and Michael Baze, 20, are rapidly becoming the best all-round riders on the circuit.

Talamo, set to lose his five-pound apprentice allowance at Del Mar this summer, continues to impress as one of the best apprentice riders of the decade, on par with Julien Leparoux, who set a high standard as the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice rider of 2006. Currently, Leparoux is edging clear of Rafael Bejarano for another meet title at venerable Churchill Downs.

Baze, further along in his development, is en route to his first Hollywood meet title with a versatile riding style that fits synthetic track racing more than the run-and-gun style that played so well on the glib California dirt surfaces of previous seasons.

Talamo, whose prior experience included a runaway meet title at Fair Grounds this winter, was a solid second to Baze at Hollywood through the end of June and has an extraordinary sense of timing that also plays well on surfaces where late rallies can be as effective as front-running speed.

Aside from the usual high profile riders at Hollywood, journeyman jockeys Jon Court and Clinton Potts have impressed by winning races on seemingly inferior horses.

The same is surprisingly true for low-profile journeyman Isaias Enriquez. A sub-10 percent rider at best through most of his career, Enriquez is clicking at 15 percent this season. The principal reason may be directly attributable to Tom Knust, his agent,

Knust, a wounded Vietnam War hero, was the first racing secretary at Canterbury Downs in 1985 and also served in that capacity at Santa Anita Park in the 1990s prior to the track being purchased byMagna Entertainment. In more recent years, Knust has been one of the most effective, hardest-working jockey agents in Southern California, handling several high-profile jockeys, including the talented, but difficult Patrick Valenzuela prior to Valenzuela's current extended absence from the game. With Knust in his corner, Enriquez suddenly is getting live mounts from live outfits, including a few from leading trainer Doug O'Neill.

On the East Coast, while the fate of the New York Racing Association is in limbo, the overall quality of daily New York racing has been vastly superior to the day-by-day racing in Southern California. This despite an over abundance of statebred races, which offer inflated purses for uninspiring fields.

That said, Keeneland - as usual - had the best overall quality of racing on a daily basis during its boutique three-week meet in April. Of equal import, much of the form established at Keeneland on its Polytrack surface has carried forward to the traditional dirt track at Churchill Downs. This despite the fact that Keeneland featured many aberrantly run races (see the Blue Grass Stakes among many with slow early-fast late race shapes).

At Calder Race Course, where the rich Summit of Speed stakes festival for sprinters will be offered on July 7, no circuit in the country can match the quality of south Florida's bread-and-butter claiming races. Moreover, there is no shortage of young maiden and allowance horses who will do well when shipped to higher-class circuits this summer - and that includes Saratoga.

Emerald Downs in Auburn, Wash., is another intriguing track that few people out of the Northwest pay sufficient respect. A well-designed, well-run racetrack with only one flaw - the absence of a turf course - Emerald is a track where the trainer is the most reliable handicapping factor needed to isolate well-meant contenders.

Among the best horsemen who operate here are Howard Belvoir, Bud Klokstad, Jeff Bonde, Sharon Ross and runaway leader Tim McCanna.

Jockey Ricky Frazier also is a regular key to the Emerald winner's circle. More than a decade ago, I saw Frazier for the first time while covering Texas racing, and from what I saw of him in mid-June at Emerald, Frazier is in career form, identifying lane biases better than any jockey on the grounds. Interestingly, Frazier is getting live mounts from low-profile outfits as well as the winningest trainers on the grounds.

Canterbury Park, which will not host the Claiming Crown this year (Ellis Park will hold the popular event on Aug. 4), still has one of the most sensible statebred racing programs in the country. Canterbury also has a terrific turf course that is equal to, or better, than similarly configured seven-furlong turf courses found on many higher-class circuits.

What makes a terrific turf course? Deep rooted grass, well banked turns that provide wide runners with a fighting chance to contend, and a drainage system that allows races to stay on the grass after moderate rainfalls.

What makes a great track to bet on? One in which good trainers and jockeys are in ready supply; one in which the racing secretary cards well-matched fields at a variety of distances on safe dirt (or synthetic) main and turf tracks, which are manicured only as needed. At the bottom line, a bettable track where there is a steady flow of accurate information provided to the betting public, without prodding by the press.

On those criteria, I would rate Churchill Downs as the clear-cut winner in my tour so far this year, with Del Mar, Saratoga and Monmouth Park yet to come.