09/20/2009 11:00PM

Playing the Polytrack


The Kentucky racing season has shifted into its Polytrack phase as Turfway Park hosts its annual late summer-early fall meet, to be followed by the annual three-week fall meet at Keeneland.

These two tracks - which were the first in America to install synthetic racing surfaces - operate consecutive meets twice a year in the same state, yet they tend to play differently than each other and quite unlike the way the other Polytracks perform at Arlington Park in Illinois, Woodbine in Canada, and Del Mar in southernmost California.

Fact is, Polytrack synthetics are, as most horseplayers have discovered, extremely sensitive to variations in climate, to changes in humidity and temperature shifts, and to the way each track's maintenance procedures are employed to deal with those issues.

At Del Mar, we saw this play out in extreme fashion when track officials realized the need to add water to the surface in 2008 and 2009, following a 2007 meet in which a water-less Del Mar surface played about three to five seconds slower when the wax polymers melted under the hot summer sun. By adding some water to the track, the polymers were kept cool enough to basically stabilize the surface and make it faster.

At Turfway Park, which is hosting night racing during the week and day racing during the weekends, we have not seen the cooler evening temperatures influence clockings. In fact, the track became faster for the warm-weather afternoon weekend cards on Sept. 19 and 20, which is one of those anomalies that can leave players wondering about the idiosyncrasies of synthetic-track racing. That said, there have been trends seen at Turfway and Keeneland during their various synthetic-track meets that horseplayers should incorporate into their handicapping.

At the current Turfway Park meet, for instance, there has been no apparent consistent track bias influencing the outcomes of sprints, whether the track is playing slow or fast. But in two-turn routes, very few horses have been able to go wire to wire.

Probably due to Turfway's excellent banking on the first turn and improved track maintenance, this one-mile oval has developed a very unusual quirk that goes against the grain of the way most two-turn races play out at other tracks of similar size. Through most of the current meet, horses breaking from outer post positions have been nearly dominant in Turfway routes. Many of them tend to break into good stalking positions, do not lose momentum on the turn, and have enough energy left to rally past the leader leaving the final turn. For a good look at this phenomenon, please note the following results for the seven routes that were run at Turfway on Sunday, Sept. 20:

Soaring Clear won at 9-1 from post 8 of 9; Cornell won at 5-2 from post 7 of 7; Miss Fark won at 12-1 from post 9 of 10, with No. 10 Bella Bella Bailey finishing second; Wayfarer won at 2-1 from post 8 of 9, with No. 9 Editor's Quest finishing second at 19-1; Gildabride won his route from post 9 of 9 at 5-1; Floating Heart won hers at 2-1 from post 8 of 8; and Codey scored at 2-1, from post 8 of 10.

Given this strong tendency, which has prevailed through much of the present meet, horseplayers should give extra credit to route-race winners who have managed to go wire to wire or set the pace along the inside until the final yards. One such horse who broke through the prevailing trend was Workinonthrailroad, a wire-to-wire winner of a one-mile, $12,500 claiming race on Friday, Sept. 18.

During the previous winter racing seasons at Turfway - a meet that will begin after the fall meets at Keeneland and Churchill Downs - the synthetic surface has gone through radical shifts in bias, from a speed-favoring track for a few days, to a track in which the horse that moves last wins most of the races. These shifts are rarely predictable, but they should be respected as soon as some racing evidence emerges.

No doubt these flip-flops may frustrate veteran horseplayers; yet they can present some of the best wagering opportunities in the state. The trick is to be aware of a shift in progress and to bet accordingly while most of the crowd is looking the other way.

As for Keeneland, which opens Oct. 9 for its three-week fall session, it will present a whole different ballgame.

As most players remember, when this picturesque track featured a dirt main oval, it was home of the most powerful inside speed bias in American racing. When Polytrack replaced that surface in 2007, the reverse was true as suddenly Keeneland strongly favored stretch-runners, a trend that persisted through the 2008 spring meet. During those early Polytrack meets, speed was a wasted commodity, and most horseplayers were as frustrated about that as the jockeys and trainers who saw their seemingly fit front-runners lose race after race.

As the track made adjustments in maintenance along the way, the 2008 fall racing surface was less prone to stretch-running tendencies and in fact played so fair that most horseplayers hope that is what we will see for the 2009 fall meet.

Of course, there may be periods when a radical stretch-running track bias returns, but the signs will be unmistakable. Otherwise, the evidence of last fall says to expect stalkers to do better than front-runners or deep closers, which is quite a change from the dirt track of 2000-2006 and the first few meets we saw on this synthetic surface.

In my personal research for the chapter on synthetic-track handicapping in my newly published "Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st Century," I also found that form established at Turfway Park did not necessarily translate to Keeneland. The key was to give credence to horses who previously had done well at both tracks. On the other hand, in another synthetic-track quirk that has to be respected, form that was established on other Polytrack surfaces - especially Arlington Park and Woodbine - historically proved quite reliable on this oval.

I also found that horses who ran well on dirt tracks in Florida, New York, and New Orleans - who had gained some stamina from recent races and/or were carrying strong turf influences in their pedigrees - usually held or improved upon their dirt form at Turfway and/or Keeneland, especially in the classier races at both tracks.

Given all these subtleties that can affect the way any race may be run on these Kentucky Polytracks, astute players might consider focusing instead on the power of winning trainer patterns more than trying to stay a step ahead of a prevailing or shifting track bias. However, once a few races on a given card provide clear evidence of a strong bias in play, players who try to use standard handicapping methods must be ready to make quick adjustments to take advantage. This is not easy, but in the game we are playing today, the race is not only to the swift on the track, it is to the swiftest in the grandstand.