08/29/2007 11:00PM

Summer of '07 lacked a certain something


DEL MAR, Calif. - No matter what else happened at Del Mar in 2007, Polytrack was always going to be viewed as the story of the season. And by golly, the new surface sure slowed things down.

Grade 1 sprinters raced six furlongs in 1:11.06, a laborious time in the once-significant Bing Crosby Handicap and more than two seconds slower than 2006. The spread was more extreme in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic. Older handicap horses needed 2:07.29 to grind out 1 1/4 miles - more than five seconds slower than last year.

Yes indeed, the game has changed because of Polytrack, and the races are slower. No big deal for most handicappers, because speed figures incorporate the "speed" of the racing surface into the number. Horses still run to their figures on Polytrack, particularly in sprints.

Thankfully, the paranoid notion that Polytrack would transform Del Mar racing into random chaos turned out untrue. As of Wednesday, favorites had won 32 percent of Polytrack races. The betting public is as smart as ever, at every distance (two-turn favorites won 33.8 percent, and sprint favorites won 31.8 percent).

It is reassuring that the principles of handicapping - condition, class, speed and pace - remain relevant on the new surface. It is why logical handicappers still have a fighting chance, and one reason why wagering handle at Del Mar is up over last year.

Furthermore, racetrack injuries have decreased over the 2006 debacle. Thank goodness for that, too. Racetrack safety was a key selling point for artificial surfaces. This summer at Del Mar injuries are down, and handle is up. It sure looks like all is well. It is an easy story to spin.

Yet no matter how good the numbers look, or how many injuries have been avoided, the 2007 Del Mar race remains void of one key ingredient. Missing this summer at Del Mar has been the sizzle.

A fan stopped the other day and asked, "Why is it, when there are five horses spread across the track at the eighth pole, that I am still bored?"

The comment would be easy to shrug off - just another sour horseplayer having a losing meet. But when you stop and think about it, impressive performances this summer at Del Mar have been few and far between.

Polytrack has obscured the big picture. It has diverted attention from the void of top-quality horses in California. It is not coincidence that in three of the most prestigious stakes races of summer, an out-of-state shipper pillaged the locals.

* In Summation was a mere Grade 3-caliber sprinter when he arrived from New York and upset Greg's Gold and Bordonaro in the six-furlong Grade 1 Bing Crosby Handicap on July 29.

* Rutherienne was a consistent East Coast stakes filly with 6 wins from 7 starts, and she commanded respect when she arrived from New York for the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks on Aug. 18. Rutherienne ran away from local leader Valbenny like she was tied to a post.

* Student Council was a mere allowance-caliber shipper when he shipped in from Kentucky for the Pacific Classic. He won by a half-length at 23-1.

Anyone who believes Student Council won because of proven form on synthetic is mistaken. Student Council won the Pacific Classic because he faced a weak field, including Lava Man.

Lava Man has owned California for most of the past two years, but he has been living on borrowed time. When he was fully extended to win the Hollywood Gold Cup by a nose over allowance-caliber A.P. Xcellent, it marked the beginning of the end. The only thing Polytrack did to Lava Man in the Pacific Classic was to hasten his surrender.

There were two other Grade 1 races this summer; neither was won by a shipper. After Market, a good horse whose ability is grossly overrated, won the Eddie Read Handicap on July 22 in a field that did not include any new shooters. Precious Kitten won the John C. Mabee on Aug. 4, a five-horse field in which the only shipper was a Grade 3 winner.

The lack of depth is reason many handicappers give close scrutiny to anything shipping from anywhere. But not every shipper to Del Mar is here to win. Some are here to be sold.

The California Marketing Committee provides a $3,000 subsidy to owners of pre-approved out-of-state shippers. Midwest trainer Cody Autrey arrived in California this summer with 20 horses from Kentucky, mostly claimers. Many of those horses appeared to be "live," when in fact they were primarily "live bait."

Eleven of the 20 horses Autrey shipped in were claimed away. Autrey won 2 races from his first 26 starters, and started five beaten favorites. If Autrey replaced the horses he lost by claiming other horses, his presence would be viewed with less skepticism.

But when an out-of-state claiming trainer arrives in California, it is a one-way street. Autrey has not claimed one horse this meet. He would not be able to take that horse back to Kentucky until November. Regarding claimed horses, rules in the Del Mar condition book state ". . . nor shall such claimed horse be eligible to race in any state other than California until 60 days after the close of the meeting from where it was claimed except to race in a stakes . . . ."

The rule is intended to prevent a repeat of the Michael Gill claiming debacle. Three years ago, Gill decimated the local ranks by claiming dozens of horses and shipping them East. The only problem with the current rule is that when an out-of-state claiming trainer runs at Del Mar, it is primarily to unload stock.

Maybe synthetic surfaces eventually will lead to good horses shipping to California, rather than claimers to be sold.

Maybe the best horses to race this summer at Del Mar - Crossing the Line, Nashoba's Key and Tasha's Miracle - will make their mark on a national stage.

Maybe next year, the sizzle will return to Del Mar. But would you bet on it?