07/16/2007 12:00AM

Something new under foot

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DEL MAR, Calif. - An informal poll of casual racing fans gathered at a local North San Diego County Starbucks, most of them yipped to the gills on java mocha grande and grooving to the hip sounds of Paul McCartney's latest musical gruel, revealed a wide variety of reactions when the term "Polytrack" was tossed in the air.

They were all heading to Del Mar for Wednesday's opening day program, during which Polytrack will fill the air. At least three people thought Polytrack was an exercise program. Someone guessed it had something to do with dentures. There was support for "lunch spread" and "floor wax," and there was one young dude who insisted that it was the name for a hot new San Diego-based reggae group specializing in retro island techno.

Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong, although I would go see a group called Polytrack in a heartbeat.

Polytrack, of course, is the new and hopefully improved ground beneath the feet of the Thoroughbreds training and racing over the Del Mar main track this summer. Wednesday's unveiling of the synthetic surface has overshadowed any kind of traditional excitement focused on the animals themselves, or the major events that the best of the breed will try to win during the season, which runs 43 days, wrapping up on Sept. 5.

The Polytrack obsession also overlooks the fact that three of the seven Grade 1 races to be run during the meet take place on Del Mar's cozy, tightly clipped Bermuda turf course, beginning with the $400,000 Eddie Read Handicap on Sunday. The point, though, still needs to be made - in America, grass horses require a main track of some kind on which to train every day, and the kinder the better.

Monday morning at Del Mar was filled with the usual whirlwind of last-minute activity in preparation for opening day. There is a standing joke about Del Mar's luxurious off-season, lasting from early September until the the third week of July, affording ample time to prepare the grounds and backstretch for a fresh start, so why all the 11th-hour rush?

The joke does not take into account, however, the fact that the San Diego County Fair does not break camp until July 5 - this year coming less than two weeks before opening day. And until you've seen what kind of havoc a big-business California county fair can wreak upon a facility, it is hard to appreciate the level of the high-speed recovery undertaken by the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. FEMA would be stumped.

However, as far as Howard Zucker and most of his fellow trainers are concerned, the story of the 2007 Del mar season is Polytrack, and only Polytrack - how it performs in competition, how it is maintained, and how their horses react physically to the vast gray expanse of waxed silica sand mixed with carpet fiber and pieces of rubber.

As chairman of the Track Committee of the California Thoroughbred Trainers Association, Zucker has been in the middle of California's fundamental shift from traditional dirt surfaces to synthetics over the past two years. As each new surface comes on line - Del Mar follows Hollywood Park, to be followed by Santa Anita - Zucker and his committee have been key to the communication between horsemen and track managements, for better or worse.

On Monday, for instance, Zucker and committee members met with Del Mar brass over complaints about a subtle but distinct change in the Polytrack surface that had the effect of tightening the ground. Zucker pointed out that in the brave new world of synthetic surfaces, the old vocabulary will need to be replaced.

"What feels hard or sounds hard to us does not play hard when you measure concussion," Zucker said, referring to synthetics. "We measured the track today, and it fell within a safe range, even though it appeared like it was almost sealed. Now, if it had been Del Mar's old dirt track, it would have been a real bone-crusher."

When it comes to the maintenance of Polytrack, Zucker is a strong proponent of anti-tinkering. When he says, "Working on this track is a mistake," he is not referring to the routine exercise of horses. He would like to see as little renovation of Polytrack as possible, at least until there is a solid body of evidence as to its effect on the health of the animals.

"Having a renovation break in the morning, I think, is a mistake," Zucker said. (There will be one, for now, at the behest of the Polytrack advisers.) "One bit of work leads to another, and another. I worked horses on Sunday, when it was looser than it was Monday, and they all came back great. That's my goal - a safer racetrack."

In one of racing's tidy little ironies, it will be a Howard Zucker-trained horse who will be the first to set foot on Del Mar's new surface for the first Polytrack race of the meet. Her name is Peace by Peace, and she will lead the post parade for Wednesday's second race, a six-furlong event for maiden Cal-bred fillies.

"That's too funny," Zucker said with a laugh. "I never thought of that. So I deserve to win, right? Or at least my filly deserves to come back sound."