03/18/2007 11:00PM

Old trends no longer apply

Email

Before Polytrack was installed at Turfway Park two years ago, Lane's End stakes day (March 24 this year), often was conducted on a biased racing surface that turned handicapping into a one-dimensional exercise.

The basic idea was to pick the horse who was most likely to get to the lead and ride the faster inner rail path to victory.

Sometimes it would be difficult to predict which horse would take best advantage of this track bias, and there were occasions when very fit horses would win while rallying against the grain of the track. But astute players could live with those outcomes while cashing several tickets on bias-aided horses on Turfway's richest and best racing card.

Fact is, the one-dimensional nature of Turfway racing was in play whenever extreme cold weather overpowered the racing surface.

In freezing weather, the speed bias would reach exceedingly effective proportions. On days when the temperature climbed into the 40's, a different bias would take over. Suddenly, Turfway form would turn upside down, as most races would be dominated by wide rallying horses far away from a thawing out, slower rail path.

Polytrack changed all of that. Polytrack completely neutralized the rail-speed bias while creating other handicapping issues that have yet to be completely understood or resolved.

For sure, the need to identify the horse most likely to get the lead and the inside rail is no longer the most important key to victory. On Polytrack, speed can still dominate - especially in sprints, but this usually occurs only when a legitimately fast and fit horse is able to gain control of the pace without extreme pressure from other rivals. To support this observation, panelists at the 2007 Horseplayers Expo cited significantly smaller win percentages in Polytrack route races compared with sprints and for front-runners at any distance on Polytrack compared with previous years when the dirt track was in play.

A key exception I have noted is when Turfway officials apparently were moved to overplay their hand while dealing with the extreme weather issues they faced this winter. Some of their adjustments involved the ratio of water in the mix with the various artificial ingredients, thereby tightening up the track, which temporarily brought back the accent on early speed.

With that backdrop, horseplayers seeking to attack the rich March 24 Turfway card should be prepared to stress more traditional handicapping values, with a few important extra considerations:

H In checking Turfway result charts through late February and March, it is apparent that previous successful racing experience on artificial surfaces has been a major plus. So, too, were standard indications of stamina in recent racing lines at longer distances and/or a series of long, evenly paced workouts, or some combination of the two. Polytrack is, after all, a non-speed favoring surface, a surface that may be safer and kinder to horses - a big plus - while it allows horses to strengthen their legs and lungs through actual racing and training, rather than contributing directly to soreness in the ankles and knees and possible breakdowns.

H Expert trainers such as Todd Pletcher and Patrick Biancone, who have already demonstrated their ability to train successfully on artificial tracks and/or have winning histories on these surfaces, appear to have a distinct advantage when competing against horsemen who have not yet mastered the subtle differences cited above. Of course, Pletcher and Biancone are not the only trainers with this edge. Players seeking to make money at Turfway should arm themselves with a handful of other such trainers.

This minimal amount of research will pay dividends on the March 24 card, which accents the best horses on the grounds throughout the day. At the bottom line, players should prefer horses trained by Turfway Park's most astute Polytrack trainers as well as horses that have shown good form over the surface and/or trained well over it.

As previously stated, horses who can finish - including horses with proven form on grass - have a preferred advantage over those who are likely to be involved in complicated pace scenarios.

Among the likely horses expected for the $500,000 Lane's End stakes is Hard Spun, a once-beaten Derby prospect who apparently did not handle the track at Oaklawn Park very well. While Hard Spun certainly has shown signs of graded stakes talent, he may be an over-bet favorite in the Lane's End, which is certain to include several good alternatives who fit the Polytrack requirements.

The most intriguing are Chelokee, Brainy Benny, Catman Running, Twilight Meteor, and Bullara.

Chelokee, an allowance winner at Gulfstream Park, is trained by Michael Matz, who trained 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro and always accents stamina in his training regimen.

Brainy Benny, a Bill Mott-trained Irish import, was third in a pair of American grass races, including the 2006 Laurel Futurity, but of equal import, was a winner on Polytrack in England last year.

Catman Running has won two Polytrack races, including the John Battaglia Memorial three weeks ago;

The ubiquitous Todd Pletcher will have a strong hand for this race, as usual. Pletcher trains Twilight Meteor and Bullara, both with good Polytrack credentials. Twilight Meteor has won stakes on turf and Polytrack in a promising five-race career, while Bullara has dominated a pair of 2007 turf routes at Gulfstream.

In addition to the Lane's End, which will be televised live on ESPN, the rich card will include a pair of $50,000 stakes, plus the $100,000 Rushaway at 1 1/16 miles, which often provides 3-year-olds nominated to the Lane's End with an alternative route to the Blue Grass Stakes or Arkansas Derby; plus the $150,000 Bourbonette Breeders' Cup for 3-year-old fillies. In the one-mile Bourbonette, Daniel Smithwick's local Polytrack stakes winner Our Dancing Babe looms a formidable win threat.

Steve Davidowitz will host handicapping seminars and signings for his new book, "The Best and Worst of Thoroughbred Racing" on the March 23 and March 24 racing cards at Turfway. Times and locations to be included in the Turfway editions of Daily Racing Form.