07/18/2007 11:00PM

One day's evidence refutes bias forecast


DEL MAR, Calif. - So much for the closer's bias that many horseplayers expected when Del Mar unveiled its new Polytrack surface for racing on Wednesday.

If you backed a main-track closer on opening day, well, you still have 40 days to try and get even.

The weird thing about the track bias Wednesday is that it emerged over an unusually slow racing surface. Five sprints were run Wednesday on Polytrack, and final times were more than two seconds slower than par from last year.

An inordinately slow racing surface often favors closers, while front-runners can be most effective on racetracks that are hard and fast. But the first day the Polytrack era suggests that old-school handicapping theory will require constant revision on the engineered racing surfaces.

The 3-year-old maiden filly Special Smoke won the first Polytrack race by running six furlongs in a deliberate 1:13.95, rallying from fifth in the field of six. Based on one race, a handicapper might conclude the new surface was bias-free. The inference would have been premature.

In four successive main-track races, the winner was challenging for the lead, or already had wrested the advantage, at the quarter pole. Coincidence? Not likely, because the statistical evidence was supported by visual impressions.

In the stretch run of every main-track sprint, horses were laboring regardless of running style. The front-runners were exhausted. So were the closers in pursuit. Few horses made up ground. The races were virtually over at the head of the lane.

If the speed-friendly profile continues, Polytrack at Del Mar will be the exact opposite of Cushion Track at Hollywood Park.

One of the handicapping attributes of Hollywood was the impartiality of the surface, most of the time. On Cushion Track, it was customary for deep closers to make up several lengths in the stretch and win. The race was never over until the finish wire.

Based on those results from Cushion Track at Hollywood, and long-distance observations of Polytrack at Keeneland and Arlington, many California-based handicappers entered the Del Mar meet with the preconceived idea that late-runners would have an advantage.

On opening day, as it turns out, they did not. The only thing closers did Wednesday was spin their wheels late, the same as the front-runners.

The dilemma facing handicappers is making sense of the opening-day Polytrack results.

There were no huge surprises Wednesday. Special Smoke ($6.60) won race 2 as the favorite, following a better-than-looked fourth-place debut. She will be up against it when she runs back in an allowance, however. Her time of 1:13.95 translated to a Beyer Speed Figure of 69.

First-time starter Freedom Summit, the second choice, put away her pace rivals and proved stubborn to collar. With a start under her belt, Freedom Summit will be tough to deny next time against similar.

Race 2 third-place finisher Blazeitgirl was compromised by the kickback. In every Polytrack race, the front-runners created a virtual tornado of spray. It affected Blazeitgirl, who was visibly uncomfortable and climbing while racing behind horses. She ran just like a typical, green first-time starter.

The widely hyped 2-year-old Coast Guard was hammered to even money when he made his debut in race 3. He broke slowly and was crowded at the start, unleashed a strong run through the turn, and fell short by a neck in 1:06.85 while earning a Beyer Figure of 74. Next time for Coast Guard.

Corey Nakatani won successive Polytrack races (5 and 6) the same way - up front. He broke open race 5 when Run Forest Run ($10.40) cut loose passing the three-eighths pole. Run Forest Run led by 4 1/2 in midstretch, died coming home, and held. That type of premature move on Cushion Track at Hollywood would have led to certain defeat. Not on Wednesday on Polytrack.

The best non-winning performance opening day on Polytrack was by race 8 runner-up, Mellow Cammie. Facing winners for the first time, he lacked speed but finished strongly and was narrowing the gap late in the highly rated maiden-40 starter.

After one day of racing, all sprints, it is premature to suggest closers will continue to take the worst of it. Besides, the first two-turn races over the new surface were not scheduled until Thursday.

Polytrack is a work in progress, and the Del Mar surface is sure to change as the season unfolds. For summer handicappers, it means daily review and constant adaptation as California racing moves into uncharted territory.

And if you backed a closer on opening day, hold on to that thought. It might not be such a bad idea, after all.