07/25/2007 11:00PM

Polytrack ins and outs begin to surface

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The first seven days of racing at Del Mar breezed past with little worry for bettors following a few simple guidelines for handicapping the new Polytrack racing surface:

o Around two turns, upgrade late-runners and downgrade front-runners. Check.

o Regarding workouts, upgrade horses that breezed on the Polytrack surface and downgrade horses without a work on the surface. Check.

o Consider vulnerable layoff horses, droppers, cheap speed, and shippers. Check, check, check, and check.

The first few days of the meet were not that tough. Favorites won 31 percent of Polytrack races (14 for 54), and it took just one day to recognize front-runners have minimal chance to stretch their speed around two turns over the new surface.

But as July turns to August, handicappers might soon discover that their confidence is as artificial as the synthetic surface. That is because the most challenging part of the racing season is still dead ahead - when horses make their second start over a peculiar, slow surface in which a six-furlong time of 1:12 can be considered quick.

The transition from Cushion Track at Hollywood Park to Polytrack at Del Mar has been extreme. Final times in sprints have been slower by up to two seconds, and some horses were not up to the challenge in their first start over the track. What about their second start of the meet?

"The horses that can run, that weren't fit enough, are going to move forward," trainer Craig Lewis said. "Any horse that showed some kind of run somewhere in the race has a chance to move forward."

Absent a race on Polytrack, a workout could suffice. Yet early in the meet, many horses raced without having breezed over the surface. Trainer Jeff Mullins started six horses on Polytrack the first week of the meet. They produced one second and two thirds. Mellow Cammie and Comical Vacation ran well, and both figure to run even better next time.

"I played the cautious card and worked everything at Hollywood, and then shipped here," Mullins said. "What I should have done was come down here and let them breeze easy [over the track]."

As the surface settles, horses and horsemen are adjusting to the nuances of racing and training on Polytrack. The track can be considerably faster in the morning, but horses still must learn how to finish. Early results are not encouraging for horses that are trained for speed.

"You can't let them blast off and go 11s around there," Mullins said. "Because you know what? - the last [eighth] is going to be 14. You have to go 13, then 12-and-4, and then let them pick it up."

Beyond workout techniques, trainers and handicappers will adjust to the changing surface in the afternoon. Applaud Dubai, a romping maiden winner at Hollywood, was an even-money favorite on July 20 in race 2 at Del Mar. Mullins did not breeze her before she ran, and the 2-year-old filly finished last. Blame it on lack of a workout, or strategical error.

"At the time, nobody wanted any part of the lead," Mullins said. "She looked like she spun her wheels, and she probably got a little discouraged because she wanted to run, and [she was rated]."

Beyond slow times, Polytrack sprints have not produced a consistent bias. The track changes daily. Around two turns, however, the slow Polytrack surface has been death on speed. The poster boy for the anti-speed bias is Buzzards Bay, who finished eighth as the favorite July 21 in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap.

Buzzards Bay made an uncontested lead in the 1 1/16-mile race, but after a half-mile in 49.46 and six furlongs in 1:14.06, he quit. Buzzards Bay did not like the track, nor did he have a workout on Polytrack.

"I didn't think there would be that much difference between Cushion Track and Polytrack," said Buzzards Bay's trainer, Ron Ellis. "But after getting down here - it's a world of difference. They're not even close to being alike. The times are not close, nothing's the same."

It was not a complaint; it is fact. After seven days, not a single horse had led wire to wire in the 13 route races. Del Mar's final times for two-turn races have been slower than Hollywood's by two to three seconds. The fastest mile was 1:40.39 by a $20,000 claimer; the fastest mile and a sixteenth was 1:45.39 by Sun Boat in the San Diego.

As for Buzzards Bay, he might not be as good as his reputation. Either way, his performance illustrates the complexity in evaluating current form based on Polytrack races. The extreme anti-speed bias provides a built-in excuse for Buzzards Bay and every other two-turn front-runner.

He was not the only well-fancied horse to disappoint. Furioso Star was 8-5 in his comeback July 21, and finished eighth. According to trainer Bill Spawr, Furioso Star did not handle the track. He also had been off six months because of an injury.

Jack the Duffer was a comeback dropper in dubious form July 23; he finished fifth at 8-5 in a $16,000 claiming race. Dunmore was a Kentucky shipper in a $20,000 claiming race on July 22 for high win-percentage trainer Cody Autrey; he finished fifth at even-money.

Polytrack exposes weakness. That might include a cheap, lesser-circuit front-runner with no synthetic experience, or a claiming-race dropper in ambiguous form.

How do you know? Lewis, a handicapper as well as a trainer, says to trust your skeptical gut.

"It's instinct, and what you see visually," he said. "Handicapping is more than just reading the Form. It's visual observation."

Even as July gives way to the most challenging part of the summer season, handicappers can still find horses to back with confidence.

Most will be sensibly placed at the proper class. They will be from stables that consistently win synthetic-surface races on the tough Southern California circuit, and trained to be more than one-dimensional rockets.