12/06/2007 12:00AM

Officials: Synthetic pros outweigh cons

EmailTUCSON, Ariz. - The racing industry's honeymoon with artificial surfaces ended earlier this year when the new surface at Del Mar came under criticism for failing to produce times consistent with the track's speed-favoring history and an awkwardly run Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland produced a bizarre finish.

However, critics of the surfaces shouldn't be expecting a divorce anytime soon, according to officials Thursday at the Symposium on Racing.

Despite some lingering concern over the effects of artificial surfaces on handicapping, racing officials said that the benefits far outweigh the negatives. Those benefits, officials said, include increases in field size and handle as well as reductions in catastrophic injuries and hard-tissue stress, which helps to prolong racing careers.

Still, officials cautioned that the learning curve associated with the transition from traditional dirt surfaces to the manufactured surfaces is gradual, and many track superintendents are still struggling to produce consistent, fair times.

Mike Young, the track superintendent for Keeneland, which is a part-owner in the company that manufactures Polytrack, said that he faced a difficult situation last year when the Lexington, Ky., facility became only the second track in the country to install an artificial surface.

"When we started out, I had no one to ask what to do," Young said. "I had to tinker with it on my own. Now, we learn from each other. Now, we've got people across the country to learn from."

In addition to Keeneland and Del Mar, the roster of tracks that now race over an artificial surface consists of Turfway Park, Arlington Park, Woodbine Racecourse, Hollywood Park, Golden Gate Fields, Presque Isle Downs, and Santa Anita Park. All have faced problems, including the compaction of the surface and the effect of weather conditions.

Craig Fravel, the executive vice president of Del Mar, said that track management was satisfied with the performance of their Polytrack surface, citing a drastic reduction in catastrophic injuries and a significant increase in field size. However, Fravel said that the track intends to address the slow times posted at this year's meet, although he wasn't certain how the problem would be addressed.

Fravel said he thought a leading factor in the slow times may have been the tactics adopted by the jockey colony to abandon California's tried-and-true method of going to the front and relying on a horse's natural speed.

"The riders are just figuring their way through this as well," Fravel said. "In my opinion, maybe that's not such a bad thing."

Ed Halpern, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, said that although criticism of the slow times at Del Mar generated publicity, the vast majority of trainers supported the track's decision because of the reduction in stress on horses when racing and training.

"The major difference now is that when a horse comes out of a work or a race, they're more ready for their next work or race," Halpern said.

Big bettors air their opinions

Artificial surfaces were also a topic at a panel on Thursday morning focusing on the needs of high-volume players. Of the three players appearing on the panel, two said that they have conscientiously avoided tracks with artificial surfaces because of difficulties associated with handicapping the races, while one said that his contrarian methods of handicapping benefited from the transition.

"I don't bet synthetic tracks," said Ernie Dahlman, a Las Vegas-based bettor who focuses on the New York circuit and says he bets approximately $10 million a year. "I'm kind of hoping that by the time everyone has synthetic tracks, I'll have been forced into getting it, or I'll be at the end of my career."

The panel also included Mike Maloney, a Lexington-based handicapper who said he bets approximately $6 million to $12 million a year. Maloney's strongest comments were reserved for the integrity of the wagering pools, citing an instance earlier this year in which he was able to place bets on a race at Fair Grounds 57 seconds after the race had already started. He said that racing officials, faced with the evidence of his transactions, dismissed the problem, and Maloney called that dismissal emblematic of an industry that refuses to spend money to upgrade its bet-processing network.

"It's like you're reporting a UFO sighting," Maloney said. "They don't have any interest in what I have to say. . . . And it's only getting worse. It costs money to fix it, and they're just hoping it goes away."

All the bettors on the panel said that they favored lowering the minimum bet for wagers, citing the development of 10-cent superfectas, which have proven popular among many rank-and-file bettors. All three also said that the exception to that rule should be the pick six, in the interest of creating carryovers.

Push under way to alter IRS rules

At a panel earlier Thursday, Peggy Hendershot, the senior vice president of legislation and corporate planning for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said that one of the priorities for the NTRA in 2008 will be convincing legislators and the Internal Revenue Service to modify reporting and tax requirements for gambling winnings. Any change in the laws and rules would be welcome to horseplayers, who are typically taxed under different rules than any other gambler.

Hendershot said that the NTRA will either ask the IRS to issue a ruling on the definition of a wager or push for legislation that would modify the reporting requirements. The purpose of an IRS ruling would be to redefine a wager based on the total cost of a ticket. Under that definition, a player who spends $1,200 on a pick six would only have to report the winning to the IRS if the payoff was greater than 300 times the cost of the ticket, rather than 300-1 odds.

Alternately, legislation would seek to push the reporting requirement higher, to 750-1, Hendershot said. Under each scenario, the NTRA would likely be facing an uphill battle: The last time the racing industry was successful in getting legislation introduced that would modify the reporting requirements, the Wall Street Journal called the changes a "gift to horseplayers."