01/13/2006 12:00AM

Track changes call for data update

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LEXINGTON, Ky - Change is a constant in this world, so it should not surprise anyone that one month after my book, "The Power of Early Speed," was published, I have already received requests for updates on four track surfaces in the Tracks and Distances chapter. The data in that chapter shows the win percentages of early-speed horses and the return on investment on them for every commonly run distance of races five furlongs and longer at every track in North America. The results show how greatly the success of speed horses can differ from track to track, and from distance to distance at the same track.

The requests make sense. Turfway Park has a new racing surface, and readers are looking for an analysis of the Polytrack race results. Evangeline Downs also has a new racing surface, so the previous numbers must be set aside. Gulfstream's one-turn mile is new since the data in the book was compiled. And Laurel's turf course has been widened. I wasn't sure how much of an impact that would have, but it was certainly worth checking out.

The updated data for each of the above-mentioned tracks was gathered beginning with the first race meet in 2005 following the change that made the update necessary, and it is current through Jan. 11, 2006.

Let's start with Turfway's new Polytrack. Before it was installed, some observers predicted that it would be totally free of any bias trends. Early leaders were supposed to win no more often than deep closers. Judging by the results I have seen as someone who has spent hundreds of hours doing track-bias research by hand since I was in high school, I was skeptical about that theory.

The results show that the Polytrack surface has not turned Turfway into Utopia Downs, where all running styles are equally successful, and bettors hold hands between races while singing "Kumbaya" as they handicap.

The good news for people who were rooting for the Utopia Downs scenario is that early speed is not as dominant as it used to be at Turfway. Six-furlong races used to produce 33 percent wins, with a $3.65 return on investment for early leaders. The comparable Polytrack results are 25 percent wins, and a $2.86 return. Races run at 6 1/2 furlongs used to yield a $3.36 ROI from 28 percent wins. That win percentage is now a shade less than 22 percent, with a $2.44 return.

How important is it to be familiar with the specific track-bias information for each distance at the tracks you like to bet on? Here is an example from Turfway that underlines how crucial this information can be. On the old dirt surface, all route distances were profitable for front-runners, but they were less successful in 1 1/16 mile races at 20 percent wins, with a $2.14 ROI. I wondered if that same trend would be found on the Polytrack. The answer is that the trend is still present, and it has been magnified significantly. Early speed is great in one-mile races, with 22 percent wins, and a $3.09 ROI. But any handicapper who fails to distinguish between front-runners in the mile races and the 1 1/16-mile races can lose his shirt in the longer races, with just 10 percent wins, and a low $1.22 ROI.

There is a decisive answer about the pace characteristics of the one-turn mile at Gulfstream. The change is insignificant. First-call leaders ging a mile used to win at a 27.9-percent rate, with a $2.79 ROI. Now they win 26.8 percent of the races, with a $2.68 return.

Early speed used to be a valuable commodity at Evangeline, with strong ROI's ranging from $2.63 to $4.24, except at 1 1/16 miles, where the return plunged to $1.46. Pacesetters still dominate on the new main track, and the returns at 1 1/16 miles are much improved at $2.46.

The sample size of the data from the Laurel turf course is on the small side, but early speed is still strong there, except for one distance. The 1 1/16-mile races stand out like a sore thumb, with just one winning first-call leader from 34 races. The old numbers were much better, so I will pass on races run at that distance until the sample size increases and clarifies the results.