08/24/2007 12:00AM

Safety matters most, not time


DEL MAR, Calif. - Among the laments floating around during Del Mar's first summer under the influence of Polytrack is that the new surface has effectively severed any links with the past when it comes to the traditional marriage of speed and class.

In firing a parting shot at the new surface, before removing his horses from the Del Mar backstretch, owner Ahmed Zayat bemoaned the fact that Del Mar's brand of Polytrack was "taking the speed out" of the game and dulling the innate brilliance of Thoroughbreds.

Zayat's comments came shortly after his swift colt E Z Warrior finished last in the Bing Crosby Handicap won by the East Coast invader In Summation, whose best form had been on the grass. Other speed horses who appeared to be taken out of their game by Polytrack have included the sharp sprinter Idiot Proof, who was upset in what should have been a soft spot against statebreds, and, of course, Lava Man, who faltered in a Pacific Classic he probably would have won had it been contested on the former Del Mar dirt.

When such headline favorites falter, answers must be found, and the public, who bet their money, need a reasonable explanation beyond the boilerplate, "Well, that's horse racing." E Z Warrior was unbeaten. Idiot Proof had won 4 of 6. Lava Man had not lost on a California main track in two years. Del Mar's Polytrack, when baked by the afternoon seaside sun, was clearly the common denominator in their failures.

So along with praise for its daring move to the kinder, gentler Polytrack, Del Mar management also must brace itself for the very real possibility that if Polytrack trends in time and form continue, the summer meet from now on will be a throw-out for handicappers and a bold-face asterisk for historians.

"I have no problem with that if it's all about safety," said Joe Harper, Del Mar's president. "But we can't be all alone. It can't be, 'Del Mar's the safest track in the country, but nobody really likes to run there.'

"One thing we are looking at is to tighten up the surface on those hot afternoons, without making it unsafe, so the horsemen will feel as comfortable with this track during races as they are during training," Harper added. "But do you tweak it now, before the end of the meet? I wouldn't do that without talking to everybody in the world first."

When the books for the 2007 season are closed, the signature number will be the 2:07.29 it took for Student Council to win the 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic in a warm and dry Aug. 19 afternoon.

Racing fans and handicappers have tended to hang their expectations on a quality mile-and-a-quarter race coming in at around two minutes flat. That was the bar set by Northern Dancer in the 1964 Kentucky Derby, and it seemed reasonable.

Because of this, it will take some time to wean racing's most loyal followers from such measuring sticks. Systems such as the Beyer Speed Figures will help, since they try to place time in context. Student Council, for instance, received a 99, while Lava Man won the 2006 Classic with a Beyer of 109.

No such interpretations were required 30 years ago, on a bygone dirt surface, when Ancient Title wired the field in the best ever running of the Del Mar Handicap.

The Del Mar Handicap will be run for the 68th time on Sunday, under the 11-furlong turf conditions that have been imposed since 1986. In fact, of the 67 previous runnings, only 10 were contested over the Crosby course distance of 120 feet less than a full mile and a quarter, and there were some well-known winners, including Precisionist, Muttering, and Go West Young Man.

But it was the 1977 edition that stands tall, boasting a field that could have replaced more than a few runnings of the 17-year-old Pacific Classic in terms of depth and class.

Among those entering the gate that day were Crystal Water (winner of the 1977 Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup), Cascapedia (on her way to an Eclipse Award as the nation's top older mare), Double Discount (who would later set an American record for 1 1/4 miles on grass), Pay Tribute (winner of the 1976 Hollywood Gold Cup), and the stakes winners Painted Wagon and Mark's Place.

They were all made to look silly by Ancient Title, the vigorous 7-year-old gelding who had already won a Hollywood Gold Cup and a Whitney Handicap. Leading from the start under Darrel McHargue, Ancient Title never let another horse sniff his tail. The winning margin was five lengths, while the winning time of 1:55.40 had amateur mathematicians extrapolating like crazy, figuring that had it been a true 10-furlong race, Ancient Title would have shaded 1:58.

That didn't matter then and matters even less now, as Polytrack puts the brakes on such imaginings. What counts for much more, if the dream comes true, is that safer synthetic surfaces will fill the fields with potential Ancient Titles and keeping them running, and that we will still be able to tell the difference when they come along.