10/06/2006 12:00AM

Power to control bias in super's hands


LEXINGTON, Ky. - As this is written on Friday morning, it remains to be seen how different the track bias on Keeneland's new Polytrack surface will be in comparison to the bias of the old dirt track. If it is anything like the Polytrack at Turfway, you can forget about the legendary Keeneland early speed bias and Keeneland's famous golden rail. Turfway's Polytrack only occasionally favored front-runners.

I walked from the winner's circle to the middle of the first turn with Keeneland track superintendent Mike Young a week ago, and I can tell you that while Polytrack is a much kinder surface than the old dirt track was, it also felt noticeably deeper, the type of track that might hinder horses with early speed.

As far as other changes, the run down the stretch is still uphill, but not as steep as it was before. The first turn, which had a sharp angle to it previously, has been smoothed out. And the banking on the turns has been increased from about 2 percent to 4 percent, which should help the horses who get stuck racing wide. Standing at the outer rail in the middle of the first turn, the drop in height to the inner rail is significant, a number of feet.

I asked Young how easy it is for him to adjust the Polytrack surface. Since Polytrack usually requires less maintenance than a dirt track, does that mean that once a track bias trend is in place it is likely to remain for a while?

"You can make it faster, you can slow it down, you can make it in between," Young said. "It's pretty easy. If you want it a little slower, you work it a little deeper. We put an irrigation system in, and that helps. If you want it faster, you don't work it as deep, and you add water to it."

It sounds easy enough, which raises an interesting question. If the track bias tendencies can be controlled to a large extent, outside of some variables such as the weather, what track bias would Young like to see? Would it be best to have Polytrack's pace characteristics resemble the normal speed bias seen on most dirt tracks, but with a safer surface, for the sake of continuity from one track to another, or is it acceptable to turn the normal track bias upside down, with a surface that favors mid-pack runners and closers?

"I want to see a horse who should win on the lead win," explained Young. "I want to have a horse who comes from behind to have just as good of a shot. I want it to be as even as it can be."

But what happens when it appears that a track bias might be in place. How quickly should changes be made? Is one speed-biased day enough to cause Young to make changes? How about two or three days in a row? At what point should handicappers expect that adjustments will be made?

"No, I wouldn't make changes based on one day," Young said. "I don't think you can judge a track based on one day. But I don't want to get the reputation we had before, of being a speed-biased track. If it is something we can correct while still leaving it as a very safe surface for horses to run on, we'll change it."

And what happens if the track turns out to favor closers?

"I guarantee that you won't hear as many people complaining about it as you would if it helped the speed," Young said.

So if a speed bias comes up and stays in place for a couple of days, you can expect that it probably won't last for long. But if closers are preferred, and there isn't much complaining from horsemen, that trend might not be changed as quickly. Handicappers might want to keep that idea in mind during Keeneland's first Polytrack meet.