10/12/2006 11:00PM

So far, consistency is Polytrack's best trait


LEXINGTON, Ky. - A lot of people have asked me whether or not I like Keeneland's new Polytrack surface. Some have guessed that a man who wrote a book about early speed might not be pleased with a track that has not been kind to front-runners.

Actually, I like this Polytrack. The most important thing about it is that it is a much safer surface for the horses who race on it, and for the jockeys who ride them. That is a crucial factor for me as a racing fan.

I have also enjoyed the new Polytrack as a handicapper. I don't need a speed bias to be happy. What I want to see from any racetrack is a predictable track bias. Front-runners are good. So are closers. Even a midpack trend, as we have seen on the turf so far - they are all great.

Although there have occasionally been winners from up close in second and third at the first call, most of them have come from mid-pack, or farther behind on this Polytrack. Fine and dandy. I adapted my handicapping to this pattern quickly, and I will be pleased with it for as long as it stays this way.

What I can't stand is a track bias that favors speed one day, closers the next, and then shows no discernible trend at all the next day. If you are a bettor who likes to handicap a race card the night before you go to the track, you want to have the confidence of knowing that the track bias you have seen over the last week or so of racing is going to continue. What good is it to spend five hours handicapping a race card with the hope of betting serious money on it if it turns out that the track bias characteristics will change overnight, for no apparent reason?

If you operate a racetrack, that isn't the right way to treat your customers. Fortunately, Keeneland has done a great job so far of making the Polytrack bias predictable, which is exactly what most handicappers and bettors want.

Keeneland's Polytrack passed an important test on Wednesday. There were a few large downpours of rain during the race card. The Polytrack is supposed to drain quickly, and for a while it did. But there was so much rain coming down so quickly that there was some pooling of water on the track. The old dirt track would have been a big mess, so this was still a better scenario. Nevertheless, some observers were concerned, since Polytrack is supposed to stand up to extreme weather conditions.

As it turned out, the deluge was absolutely no problem. The tractors made one trip around the track as they worked the surface with the Gallop Master, a specially made harrow-like piece of equipment used to maintain the Polytrack surface. Like magic, the water was gone. The Polytrack looked good as new. It was amazing to see how quickly the track recovered.

Looking down the road, I have a theory about the influence of Polytrack on the interpretation of Kentucky Derby prep races run at Keeneland. My guess is that no horse owner or trainer will watch his horse run in a Derby prep race on this track and leave unhappy.

Consider these scenarios. Your horse runs well in the Blue Grass Stakes. Do you as an owner or trainer interpret that as a sign that your horse is approaching the Kentucky Derby in peak form, and go on to Louisville, or do you view it as a fluke because the race was run on Polytrack? Human nature suggests that every good race run by a horse on Polytrack will be attributed to the talent of the horse.

Now, say that your horse runs a disappointing race, and finishes 20 lengths behind the winner of the Blue Grass Stakes. Do you as an owner or trainer interpret that as a sign that your horse is likely to be overmatched in the Kentucky Derby, or do you view his defeat as a fluke because the race was run on Polytrack? Human nature suggests that the race will be forgiven by the connections of all losing horses. That makes the Blue Grass Stakes the perfect Kentucky Derby prep. Nobody loses the race! You either run well, or the race doesn't count.