06/16/2008 11:00PM

Solving synthetic mysteries


The three-month Hollywood Park meeting has only one month to go and will be followed by the annual trek south to Del Mar by the sea.

In the Midwest, Arlington Park's 96-day meet also is picking up momentum as summer officially arrives this weekend.

The common denominator for these three tracks, of course, is not warm summer weather, or good turf racing that can be found on a daily basis, but the synthetic tracks that are in play for their respective "main track" races.

While a dynamic, eventful Triple Crown season diverted attention away from these Western and Midwestern tracks, Hollywood horseplayers have been treated to a formful meet with an occasionally slow rail path and relatively few shifts in track bias. This has been a refreshing change after a troubled Santa Anita meet that included nine lost days because of drainage problems and some drastic adjustments to the surface that still needs tinkering to be ready for the Breeders' Cup fall meet.

The changes that were implemented in February and March to boost Santa Anita's drainage capability saved the meet, but they also left overall form hard to evaluate.

On one hand, horses who raced over the hybrid Cushion Track that had been "fixed" with Pro-Ride polymers, did seem to help advance the conditioning of horses who shipped away from Santa Anita to run elsewhere. Yet, the subtle changes that altered the surface on the fly also left horseplayers doubting the validity and importance of previous efforts on the same surface.

In fact, subtle changes to synthetic tracks often affect handicapping, as we learned last summer when Del Mar's Polytrack racing surface gave us dramatic confirmation of the impact of moisture on tracks that were not supposed to be affected by such things. Moreover, looking back at Del Mar we can see how handicapping can be turned upside down when the moisture content is in flux on a normal day that does not even include a drop of rain.

In 2007, workout clockings at Del Mar were as fast as we usually see in the morning hours at Southern California tracks; but in the afternoon, the track was so slow the races could have been timed with an hour glass.

Very fast, Grade 1 sprinters were all out to get six furlongs in 1:11, where 1:08 would have been typical for the same horses on a dirt track, or even at Hollywood Park on a well maintained synthetic track.

Grade 1 routers needed 2:07 to complete 1 1/4 miles in the Pacific Classic, compared with 2:01 for a normal Grade 1 race at 10 furlongs.

Expensively bred 2-year-old maidens - the lifeblood of the Del Mar racing season - were regularly clocked in 1:05 and 1:06 for 5 1/2 furlongs, compared with 1:03 on standard dirt surfaces.

The changes in basic track conditions that occurred within a few hours each day at Del Mar were caused by one very subtle fact of Del Mar life, not seen anywhere else. Yet, if we examine the change, we can clearly see the powerful impact that shifting weather has on any synthetic racing surface. Remember, these surfaces were not only sold as "safer" for horses, but on the idea they would be impervious to weather issues. This hardly has been the case.

Specifically, at Del Mar, a beautiful track that stands about three furlongs from the Pacific Ocean, a daily cloud cover tends to bring plenty of moisture in from the shore during morning workouts. A few hours later, perhaps as early as noon, the clouds inevitably disappear, leaving the track to bake under the hot summer sun.

The difference in track conditions from morning to afternoon was so severe that track officials reluctantly agreed that adjustments would probably be needed during the off season. Sure enough, Del Mar officials formally conceded last month that the solution for 2008 will include "regular watering" of the Polytrack surface.

At this point, a month before Del Mar opens, it is impossible to know just how often and how much water will be needed to stabilize the surface and bring the afternoon track closer to the relative speed of the morning sessions. It also is impossible to know if more or less water will be needed late in the day and on the cards that conclude past sunset on Friday evenings. But this much is certain: Players who keep accurate records of the way the Del Mar track behaves each day this summer will catch winners others will not see even after the result is made official.

Polytrack is the synthetic surface in use during the winter at Turfway Park, during the spring and fall at Keeneland, and during the nine-month meeting at Woodbine in Canada, as well as the five months at Arlington Park in northern Illinois. While there are subtle differences between the same branded synthetic track surfaces in each location, there is growing evidence that the most important issue for handicappers is what each track does to handle severe temperature shifts and how it regulates the relative moisture in these porous surfaces.

Chicago-based professional handicapper Scott McMannis, who provides considerable insight via his Arlington-sponsored handicapping seminars and Internet blog, pointed this out in a recent study of conditions on his home track.

Said McMannis of his Arlington Park research: "There are fewer biased days, fewer lane biases in general, fewer pace-related biases, and much fewer radical ups and downs in track variants."

Yet McMannis added that rainfall definitely "has a significant, if not short-term effect on handicapping," which goes contrary to the promotional brochures put out by the Polytrack manufacturer.

"When it rains," McMannis added, "the track speeds up and in turn, there is a tendency for [the track] to become more speed-favoring. This is not guaranteed to occur, but it is a tendency, something to watch for in the early races on a rainy day or a day after rains. Apparently, the surface retains some moisture, compressing the mixture enough to speed it up and in some instances become less tiring."

This is similar to the trend that affected Del Mar last summer, and it is similar to the effects seen at Turfway and Woodbine as well.

This single perspective may not unlock all the standing mysteries of Polytrack handicapping, but it already has led to several unexpected winners as well as a better understanding of why some synthetic track races defy normal analysis.

At the bottom line, despite the absence of "sloppy" or "wet-fast" labels that usually accompany rain-moistened dirt tracks, players who keep notes on the amount of rain and its immediate effects at Arlington and other synthetic tracks will have tools to work with that go beyond what others may be using to handicap the same races.