07/16/2007 11:00PM

This summer a season of change

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Del Mar

DEL MAR, Calif. - Everything is new and different this summer at Del Mar, but when the 43-day race meet begins Wednesday, the question is, how much has really changed?

Polytrack has replaced dirt on the main oval, yet the best horses still win by making left-hand turns. And while tradition mandates the first race of summer be a two-turn route that starts directly in front of the packed grandstand, this year the first race is on grass.

"It's a new Del Mar, and it's a bit of a change," said Del Mar's racing secretary, Tom Robbins.

It only takes one glimpse of the new main track to see the difference.

California enters the next phase of transition to an all-synthetic circuit this summer, with plenty at stake. Based on average daily handle of more than $13 million, and daily purses inching near $600,000, Del Mar is the most successful track in California. But 2007 will be the state's first meet on Polytrack, and Del Mar management acknowledges some worries.

"There is some trepidation," Robbins said. "I know it's confusing. But most important, the horses are coming back better. That's the goal, and we hope the players appreciate that and can adjust their skills."

Handicappers face only a handful of Polytrack challenges opening day. All five main-track races are sprints; the other four races are turf, including three divisions of the one-mile $75,000 Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-olds. Trainer John Sadler and owner Edmund Gann may strike with a European import in the first division of the Oceanside (race 1).

Karazi arrived last week from France, where he won 3 of 7 races, including a clever allowance win early last month.

"We're running him right off the plane, which sometimes works pretty well," Sadler said. "He's a good-looking horse, and I loved his last win. He had a nice turn of foot."

Corey Nakatani will ride.

When the Oceanside drew 29 entries and a $16,000 claiming route did not fill, the stakes was split in three divisions and positioned to kick off the meet. The first race of summer "is still going to be in front of the grandstand, just 65 feet farther away," Robbins said.

In the first Oceanside split, Karazi will meet another promising European import. Ten a Penny won his first four races on second-tier tracks in England before finishing fourth in a strong race at Newmarket. Craig Dollase is the colt's new trainer.

Ten a Penny will be ridden by Michael Baze, who has emerged as the top jockey on the Southern California circuit. Baze, 20, and apprentice Joe Talamo, 17, were the top two riders at Hollywood, and have invigorated the aging local colony.

In the second division of the Oceanside (race 4), T'aint War Sir will be heavily backed, largely because of the presence of Del Mar's all-time leading trainer, Ron McAnally, and last summer's leading jockey, Victor Espinoza. T'aint War Sire finished a troubled third in an allowance race July 1 at Hollywood, and should improve second time running long.

T'aint War Sir will be facing a hot new shooter from Florida. Sparkling Notion won 2 of his last 3 on grass in Florida. He was purchased privately last week. Sparkling Notion arrived in California over the weekend and will be making his California debut for trainer Peter Miller.

"He's in good shape, he's training well, he's healthy and happy," Miller said. Sparkling Notion also is fortunate. He drew into the second division of the Oceanside (race 4), which is the weakest of the three.

In the third Oceanside, race 7, graded stakes-placed Mayor Bozarth will face allowance winners Vauquelin and Teeman. Mayor Bozarth is owned by John Amerman, whose highly regarded 2-year-old colt Coast Guard is expected to be favored when he makes his career debut in race 3.

Though Del Mar is heavy on turf racing, it also is the meet at which the top 2-year-olds emerge leading to season-ending Grade 1 races. The seven-furlong Del Mar Futurity is run closing day, Sept. 5. The seven-furlong Del Mar Debutante for fillies will be run Labor Day, Sept. 3.

Lava Man continues to hold control of the California handicap division, and will seek his second consecutive Pacific Classic victory on Aug. 19. By then, handicappers may have gained an understanding of the nuances of Polytrack.

Some handicappers envision the surface switch as a potential bonanza, but Sadler suggested bettors "be careful" early in the meet.

"I would cut back on betting, watch, and see what's winning," Sadler said. "Anyone that tells you they know [what running styles will win], doesn't know."

As for Miller, he entered five dirt horses the first two days of the meet.

"I'm coming with both barrels firing," he said, advising bettors to "handicap Polytrack like you would any other surface, until you see a trend. Everyone is thinking it's going to be a strong closer's bias, so you may get a few that sneak out there and keep going."

Del Mar has installed Trakus, a system that electronically follows horses in a race and presents their progress on the infield tote board and closed-circuit television, as well as supplying the exact distances each horse runs in a race.