07/13/2008 11:00PM

Poly tweaks aim to offer consistency


DEL MAR, Calif. - From a training standpoint, Del Mar's new Polytrack surface received largely favorable reviews last summer. It was as a racing surface that opinions were as divided as the Red Sea.

Trainers complained their horses were not handling the surface, and that it was leading to soft-issue injuries. Jockeys complained that their horses struggled over the surface. Handicappers found the race results baffling, since a long-standing fundamental like pace became obsolete. How a horse handled the track was paramount.

Although Del Mar management was defensive about the new product, it was not recalcitrant. In the 45 weeks since the 2007 season ended, a plan was hatched to try and make the surface more consistent in order to please all constituents for this year's meet, which begins Wednesday. Most notably, a new type of wax was mixed into the synthetic surface. And, in a wholesale change from last year, the track - which had been advertised as maintenance-free - will be watered during the races to try and keep it cool.

Last year, the surface was firm in the cool mornings but deep and tiring during the races, when it got warmer.

"We're confident we will have less difference between the morning and the afternoon," said Tom Robbins, Del Mar's vice president of racing and its racing secretary. "We had two different surfaces last year. Still, with the difference in surfaces, we had very few catastrophic injuries. And it helped subsequent meets. Entries were up at Oak Tree. We were sending back a much healthier horse.

"Given all that, we recognize we had to do something so that there wasn't a difference from the morning to the afternoon, but not sacrifice safety."

The number of horses euthanized fell last year from 2006, when Del Mar had a dirt track. There were 18 horses euthanized in 2006, and 11 last year. Of those 11 fatal injuries, six came on the Polytrack. Four were training injuries and two came during a race.

According to Jim Pendergest, the general manager for Martin Collins Surfaces and Footings - the manufacturer of Polytrack - the new wax that was mixed into the surface is more heat resistant than the previous wax. One thing is for certain, the new wax does not give off the rancid smell that permeated Del Mar last year.

"The test will be when we get some heat on it in the afternoons," Pendergest said. "When it's 90 and sunshine, those are the toughest days."

Those who attended last year's Pacific Classic can attest to that. Student Council's winning time of 2:07.29 for 1 1/4 miles was 5.67 seconds slower than the 2:01.62 recorded by Lava Man over dirt in 2006, which had been the previous record slow time in the first 16 runnings of the Pacific Classic. Lava Man finished sixth last year, beaten by seven lengths.

"I just hope the afternoons are more morning-like," said Doug O'Neill, Lava Man's trainer. "If the track is the same in the morning and the afternoon, it will be a more formful meet. When they run a mile and a quarter in 2:08, you don't know what to think. They run 20 lengths faster in the morning."

That said, O'Neill loved training on the surface and does not want to go back to dirt.

"When you'd first get to Del Mar, the track would be deep, then it would tighten up, then it would get loose," O'Neill said.

According to Beyer Associates, which makes the Beyer Speed Figures, Del Mar's surface was demonstrably slower last year than in 2006. For instance, the variant on opening day in 2006 was -20 (fast by 20 points), while it was +18 (slow by 18 points) last year, a difference of 38 points, which equates to about four seconds at one mile.

The average winning time for $25,000 claimers going six furlongs in 2006 was 1:10.80, while it was nearly two seconds slower, 1:12.70, last year.

"It was ridiculous as hell last year in the afternoon," said veteran trainer Mel Stute, who is known to wager once in a while, too.

Trainer Barry Abrams said: "It was slow, but it was safe."

With just that one season in the books, some trainers are taking a wait-and-see approach before making commitments. Bill Mott said he wanted to see how Del Mar's track plays before deciding whether to send Go Between, the Hollywood Gold Cup runner-up, to the Pacific Classic.

John Shirreffs, who scratched Tiago from last year's Pacific Classic because of the track's condition, will be watching closely to see if he will run the unbeaten filly Zenyatta at Del Mar.

"It depends upon the track at Del Mar and what they've done with their track," he said.

Pendergest said he believed watering in the afternoon would help the track remain as firm during sunny afternoons as it is in during cloudy mornings.

"We have two water trucks," Pendergest said. "I don't think it'll need a lot of water."

Reaction to the new track has been positive so far. Trainer Bill Spawr on Monday said "it looks like it's got a lot of moisture in it."

"All the trainers I've talked to, they say their horses are working well and coming back good," Spawr said. "And the coming back good, that's the important part."