04/29/2008 11:00PM

Track ready for second year on Polytrack


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Nice horses graced the Arlington Park racetrack in 2007, but the real star of the meeting might have been the racetrack itself.

After a 2006 meet where a rash of breakdowns spread storm clouds, Arlington invested some $10 million replacing its dirt surface with Polytrack. That investment has proven to be one of the few success stories of the synthetic-track revolution.

With a couple exceptions, racetracks that have converted from dirt have experienced varying degrees of problems with their new synthetic surfaces.

Arlington has had virtually none. While many horsemen here last year cautioned that Polytrack alone was far from racing's savior, and handicapping presented a new series of challenges, Arlington lost not a single day of racing or training in 2007.

"We saw the impact we wanted to see," Arlington president Roy Arnold said.

Year 2 of Arlington Polytrack begins Friday, when the track launches a 96-day meeting that looks much like the 2007 season. Four-day racing weeks early in the meet and late, which started last year, are back again. Gone is a local stakes mainstay, the Washington Park Handicap, but Arlington has added a couple stakes to the menu, such as the American 1,000 Guineas on May 24.

Average daily purses are the same as in 2007, about $210,000. Leading rider Rene Douglas is back to defend his crown, and leading trainer Wayne Catalano figures to make his usual hay. Todd Pletcher was satisfied enough with his inaugural season here that he took out 46 stalls for this meet, too, and Bill Mott has added his name to the local training colony.

But here's a lesser-known name instrumental to Polytrack success: Javier Barajas. Barajas is the Arlington trackman charged with overseeing the transition to a synthetic surface last year. Learning as he went, Barajas drew top marks from pretty much all quarters in 2007.

"Javier is just so meticulous," Arnold said.

Barajas said his crew went over the track with 10-ton rollers following the 2007 season, packing the Polytrack tight after it had been leveled out at a uniform 7-inch depth. And that was how the surface remained until mid-April, when Barajas readied the surface for the arrival of horses. It took just two days to harrow and roto-till the track back into shape, and while the Polytrack has played quick during morning training this cool, wet spring, the surface has simplified Barajas's job.

"With dirt, I wouldn't have had time to get the track ready this spring," Barajas said Tuesday. "Even now, with the [dirt] training track, I'm getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning trying to get that right."

All along, Barajas has taken a less-is-more approach to maintenance. He digs into the surface as little as possible and stays off it as much as possible. This year, Arlington will train all morning without even a renovation break: the main thing is to promptly remove manure to keep it from leeching into the Polytrack.

While within historical norms, the number of breakdowns here last year fell sharply from 2006. Average starters per race rose from 7.46 two years ago to 8.33 last year. And though form could sometimes seem random, the Arlington meet ended without any long-term biases.

"Sometimes there were biases last year, but it was more day-to-day variables," jockey Chris Emigh said. "It's a year older, so who knows how it's going to be this time, but the main thing is that it's fair."

If all the rain in the forecast this week actually falls, the opening-day feature, the Double Delta for 3-year-old fillies, easily could be transferred from turf to Polytrack. Carded for about one mile on turf, the Double Delta has 10 horses in the main body, with three more on the also-eligible list. Vancy Pants, who recently finished a close fourth in a Keeneland grass stakes, may be favored under Douglas, but is far from the only win contender in a well-matched field.