08/28/2003 12:00AM

Track bias key factor this weekend


DEL MAR, Calif. - The unpredictable nature of the Del Mar main track complicates both main-track stakes this weekend. It comes as no surprise. The 2003 racing season has marked the return of track bias as a prime handicapping consideration.

It is not enough to merely analyze the horses this summer. One also must question the surface on which they race. It changes constantly. Rally-wide one day, inside speed the next. Flip a coin.

In a Grade 1 sprint for 2-year-old fillies Saturday, and again in a Grade 2 route for older males Monday, form analysis of top contenders is muddled. That is because fillies Halfbridled and Victory U. S. A. and older horse Taste of Paradise each scored impressive last-start victories racing on surfaces highly advantageous to their running styles. Perhaps all three are as good as they looked. Or not.

When she dominated maidens by more than four lengths July 27, Halfbridled had plenty of assistance from a severe rally-wide bias; every dirt sprint was won by a closer. How significantly the bias helped Halfbridled is the issue. If nothing else, a handicapper must recognize that she won under ideal circumstances.

By Aug. 3, the bias had reversed. Taste of Paradise was ignored at 37-1 in a Grade 2 route, most figuring the sprinter would not survive at 1 1/16 miles. But that was before evidence of a speed bias that would benefit every main-track front-runner. How much did the bias help Taste of Paradise? Who knows? When he runs in the Del Mar Handicap, handicappers must consider the fact that Taste of Paradise won his last start under ideal circumstances.

A similar dilemma applies to Victory U. S. A., who made her debut on the speed-favoring Aug. 3 racetrack. Hammered to even money, she galloped by more than six lengths with the wind virtually at her back. The bias-aided win leave bettors in a quandary this weekend. Can performances by Halfbridled, Victory U. S. A. and Taste of Paradise be accepted at face value? Or should there be an asterisk attached to all three?

It is not a simple question to answer, nor is track bias typically a major consideration. But it cannot be ignored when it directly influences the outcome of races, which it has at least one-quarter of the time here this summer.

A pro-speed bias emerged on six of the first 30 programs - July 24 and 26, and Aug. 2, 3, 14, and 22. Front-runners lasted longer than expected; late-runners spun their wheels when they should have rallied. The opposite extreme occurred twice - a bias favoring rally-wide closers. The most severe was July 27, when Halfbridled made her debut accompanied by pre-race whispers that she was something special.

Trainer Richard Mandella believed Halfbridled had Breeders' Cup potential even before she started. The filly trained like the goods, and was bred (by Unbridled) to run on. Mandella's concern was that 5 1/2 furlongs was too short. But he could not have known that Halfbridled would be racing on a track perfectly suited to her closing style.

Halfbridled produced no speed, and trailed early. She picked up steam into the turn, rallied wide over the fastest part of the track, inhaled her rivals in the lane, and drew out by 4 1/2 lengths while earning an outstanding 87 Beyer Speed Figure. Wow. At 5 1/2 furlongs, Halfbridled was just getting warmed up.

Juvenile fillies do not typically score daylight sprint wins rallying from last. That is, unless they are either extraordinarily gifted, or flattered by circumstances. In the case of Halfbridled, it could be both. Yet there is the nagging thought that Halfbridled's victory was partially tainted by the bias.

Victory U. S. A. earned an 84 Beyer in her debut, an insignificant 3 points fewer than Halfbridled's 87. The romping debut win by Victory U. S. A. was accomplished in the opposite manner. Whereas Halfbridled rallied from last, Victory U. S. A. raced straight to the lead over a racetrack that - surprise! - favored speed. She never looked back. But the bias leaves one wondering if the victory was really as good as it looks.

It is not an easy call in the Debutante: Victory U. S. A. and Halfbridled stand out. On Monday in the Del Mar Handicap, there are a few more choices. A large field will race one mile, and one of the concerns is whether Taste of Paradise is legitimate.

He certainly is fond of Del Mar, having outrun his odds in both stakes he tried here. Runner-up at 15-1 last year in the El Cajon, Taste of Paradise started at 37-1 in the San Diego on Aug. 3. He caught a pro-speed racetrack and was gone.

Taken at face value, the victory makes Taste of Paradise a contender right back. But if the Aug. 3 racetrack was as speed-conducive as perceived, Taste of Paradise will be in for a rude awakening Monday.

That assumes, of course, the racetrack is fair to all running styles, which has not always happened this summer at Del Mar.

The 2003 racing season will be remembered for the return of track bias as a prime handicapping consideration.