12/10/2007 12:00AM

Synthetic strategies: Connections who stand out

EmailIf truth be told, many experienced horseplayers are hoping that the synthetic track era will be short lived, which is highly unlikely. Their laments go something like this:

"I just can't figure out which horses are going to like it, [Polytrack, Cushion track, or Tapeta] and which ones will not . . . Do I really have to learn a whole new game to play these tracks?"

The answers probably will become self evident in a year or two or three. But that is a long time for anyone to wander in the wilderness. Yet, for players willing to suspend their more sophisticated handicapping approaches, there may be a few shortcuts to the promised land.

As has been suggested here and elsewhere, one such shortcut is to accent horses with turf breeding and/or horses with better form on grass than dirt. While this is not a perfect fit, sufficient evidence indicates a generally positive correlation, perhaps due to less "kickback" from synthetic and/or turf than we usually see on traditional dirt.

Another, less publicized angle, involves suspending one's own interpretation of all basic form factors and leaning instead on the apparent success of selected jockeys and trainers who are winning synthetic track races at or near 20 percent or higher with a positive return on investment (ROI).

This may involve high-profile trainers and jockeys and some that operate below the radar. In each case, the criteria for a systematic approach based on this angle should include two possible variations.

* The winning history for the trainer and the jockey can be on a specific type of synthetic track such as Cushion Track, or Tapeta, or Polytrack, or it can be on synthetic tracks in general.

* The stats may reflect only the current synthetic track meet, or they may be based on the entire year's synthetic history.

Todd Pletcher, for example, certainly has not suffered any loss of production on synthetic tracks in Kentucky and California with his prolific stable, winning at virtually the same 20 to 25 percent, just as he does on dirt and turf. Pletcher, in fact, was among the first trainers who seemed to recognize the value of turf breeding for synthetic track horses, as well as the importance of somewhat longer workouts - to accent stamina - than he usually employs for dirt.

But just as Pletcher's high profile usually attracts extra wagers in most categories, his 24 percent winners on synthetic surfaces average about a 25-cent loss for every $2 invested. Those numbers do shift into positive territory, however, when Pletcher's horses are ridden by Garrett Gomez, the versatile jockey who broke Jerry Bailey's record for stakes victories in a single season last month and is proving to be a prolific winner on synthetics.

Gomez seems to have the ideal approach to synthetic track racing. He seldom rushes horses, he seldom pushes them into faster than usual fractions, and invariably applies only light pressure to achieve a contending position before asking for a strong late response.

Other jockeys who have mastered this sophisticated approach include a few young riders who have zoomed quickly to the top of national rankings: Michael Baze, Rafael Bejarano, and Julien Leparoux to name three of the most obvious. There are others, just as there are other trainers who also have gained a grip on the different conditions posed by artificial racing surfaces.

At Turfway Park, which has had Polytrack racing for more than two years, here are four such trainers worth keeping in mind:

* Laura Jackson, a 20 percent trainer in Michigan, has managed similar stats on Polytrack at a sky high ROI above $6 per every $2 bet. While this is sure to come down as more players become aware of her in Kentucky, she nevertheless has demonstrated her synthetic track proficiency.

* Thomas Drury Jr., a selective, 25 percent trainer for 2007, has been a 20 percent trainer on Polytrack with an ROI above $3 for synthetic tracks. His synthetic ROI with jockey Justin Vitek also is positive.

* Helen Pitts, a rising star among trainers in the Midwest and a former assistant to Ken McPeek, has been a consistent 18 to 20 percent winner throughout the year on all surfaces with a positive ROI on Polytrack.

* Daniel Smithwick, a 22 percent winner this year on all surfaces, has been hovering around 20 percent on Polytrack with a positive ROI that is equal to or better than any other category in his resume.

At Hollywood Park, where a version of Cushion Track has been in play that resembles, but is subtly different than the Cushion Track at Santa Anita, here are three more trainers with positive synthetic track profiles.

* Craig Dollase, a 20 percent winner all year, has been clicking at 24 percent on California synthetic tracks with a steady, positive ROI.

* Mike Mitchell, a force in Southern California for several years, has adapted superbly to the synthetic tracks on this circuit. A 22 percent winner in all categories for 2007, Mitchell has been winning at or above 25 percent on Polytrack and Cushion Track with a positive ROI that has increased at Hollywood when he has used Michael Baze.

* John Shirreffs, a 24 percent trainer in 2007, has a higher strike rate and an ROI above $3.50 on synthetic tracks. Oddly, at Hollywood, when linked with Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who is riding in career form, Shirreffs's ROI suddenly dips into negative numbers. The only reasonable explanation for this is that most Shirreffs-trained horses ridden by Smith have been getting whacked at the windows by players who have caught on to their combined potency.

If you notice, I have not included such stalwart Southern California-based trainers as John Sadler, Doug O'Neill, and Jeff Mullins, all 20 percent winners for the year. While each certainly seems to understand what it takes to win on synthetic tracks, their ROIs suggest they are routinely overbet.

While it is unwise to exclude their fit horses from multi-race exotics, there is nothing to be gained focusing on them with straight win bets on synthetic tracks unless they are also using jockeys with positive synthetic track ROIs. An example would be Sadler when hooked up with talented Joe Talamo. Another would be Jerry Hollendorfer when linked up with rejuvenated Tyler Baze; Mullins when Martin Pedroza rides and/or the Eastern-based Christophe Clement when he journeys west and uses Julien Leparoux.

Also, while this trainer-jockey approach to synthetic track handicapping may lack the depth of conventional approaches, it has been producing winning results for several months. That is something many synthetic track players admit they are having difficulty achieving.