04/09/2007 12:00AM

Travel goodies and gripes


Since early March, I have been making stops at different racetracks in different regions of the country and have encountered a wide assortment of different wagering circumstances and issues.

For example, at Sunland Park in New Mexico, a track that has slots and is using the revenue to upgrade its status and quality of racing, it seemed strange that the WinStar Derby, a $600,000 race whose last two winners produced a Breeders' Cup winner (Thor's Echo) and the winner of the Lone Star Derby (Wanna Runner), should not be graded. This year the WinStar Derby was won by the graded-stakes-placed Song of Navarrone, who recorded a triple-digit Beyer and seemed likely to be one of the main contenders for the Santa Anita Derby until he was sidelined in late March.

Surely the region's horseplayers - as much as the track itself - would benefit from a little deserved national recognition, given the investment Sunland and WinStar Farm are making on behalf of the game. Surely graded status for this race would lead to better horses at Sunland and that would in turn help interest in the region.

At Turfway Park the following week, it was hard to miss the level of quality in the track's jockey colony, led by Eclipse Award winner Julien Leparoux, but shadowed closely by Alonso Quinonez and Miguel Mena.

Quinonez, an apprentice who is being recruited by New York-based jockey agents, just missed winning the riding title when Leparoux clinched it by a single victory in the final racing card. Mena, who won 70 races - five fewer than Leparoux - was another who looked the part of a major-league rider on the improve.

For Lane's End Stakes Day, March 24, the track treated its best customers to a lavish spread that went beyond the normal expression of gratitude for fan support. In the Grade 2 Lane's End, Hard Spun certainly regained lost luster with a strong victory over a moderate group that was only marginally better than the horses Song of Navarrone defeated at Sunland. Yet beyond Hard Spun's fine performance and the track's positive promotions, there was an issue that seemed equally important to serious horseplayers.

Leading up to Lane's End Day, most Turfway races on the Polytrack surface had been dominated by stretch-runners and horses with some signs of stamina. But that was not the story on March 24, when it was exceedingly difficult for fit contenders to make up serious ground on the leader from the top of the stretch to the finish line.

As many astute handicappers have pointed out, one of the prime areas of constant concern for horseplayers is the way track superintendents can severely alter or create a track bias without any warning at almost any time. Apparently, the techniques employed to fine tune artificial surfaces - including the degree of moisture involved - can play important roles in creating temporary but powerful track biases.

While it has been a longstanding tradition for racing surfaces to be manicured to produce fast, eye-catching clockings on big-race days, the whole idea behind artificial tracks is to promote fair and safe racing in which horses and horseplayers can expect minimal shifts that affect the outcomes. That was not the case at Turfway Park on its biggest, most important racing day, when the track changed virtually overnight and the dramatic change in conditions was not lost on many of the players Turfway was trying to impress with its hospitality.

On the plus side for horseplayers, Polytrack did contribute to larger-than-usual field sizes throughout the meet, even though there were some days when extremely cold temperatures caused problems with the racing surface's consistency. While there may be other puzzling aspects to artificial surface handicapping, astute players who are quick to spot new trends before they become common knowledge are going to catch some amazing prices.

At Gulfstream Park, where newly installed slots promise to increase purses and stabilize winter racing in south Florida, the best places to play horses are in the well-appointed simulcast rooms and from the ring of seats that surround the outdoor walking ring on the back end of the track. But to this veteran horseplayer who prefers to see races live via binoculars from a well-placed seat on the front side, the lavishly appointed Gulfstream was a major disappointment even after management added several hundred seats to the 1,100 that were in place on opening day 2006.

During my book signing at Gulfstream on Florida Derby Day, at least 20 different horseplayers stopped at my table to register their complaints about inadequate seating and a few said they were just going to place some bets and go home. Unfortunately, those players expecting to watch the $1 million Florida Derby on the tube had another issue to deal with: The richest race in south Florida was not televised, at least not on home TV. It was "simulcast" on a web site, which offended several other players when they asked, "What channel was it going to be on?"

While I try to devote this column to handicapping ideas and evaluations of important horses and major stakes races, when racetrack policies interfere so much with normal horse playing, something needs to be said on behalf of those who love and support the game. At the bottom line, horseplayers throughout the country are wondering when Gulfstream's high-priced management team will get the message: When will the track admit it has gone overboard towards slots? For sure, new ideas and new approaches to the racing game have to be attempted, but if those who were there on Florida Derby Day are a good sampling, the track's present approaches are not winning many new horse racing fans, much less satisfy old ones.

At Sam Houston Race Park which I covered for the Houston Post (R.I.P) in 1994, the last year of that paper's existence and the first year of Houston's racetrack, I saw a very clean, well-run facility with an excellent turf course that was not shut down or turned into a bog when hit with a heavy downpour on April 7.

I also saw a strong group of trainers on the premises, with Steve Asmussen, Bret Calhoun, Jernesto Torrez, and Michael Stidham all winning at a rate of 23 percent or more from at least 70 starters, while Danny Pish won his second consecutive meet title, edging Calhoun with 44 victories to 42. The jockey colony also was extremely well balanced with 10 different riders winning at least 30 races, and solid journeymen Larry Taylor and Paul Nolan winning 63 and 56, respectively. In addition, Roimes Chirinos, who won 55 races, is headed for the major tracks in the East.

During my week there, one of the most potent handicapping angles was a simple one: Play horses trained by one of the top dozen trainers, if that horse was being ridden by a jockey with 30 percent or more wins for that trainer. Sometimes, that was all a player needed to catch a solid winner or a good key to an exotic wagering key.

Sam Houston certainly has a full menu of wagering options, including 10 cent superfectas on every race and rolling pick threes, plus simulcasting of every possible track in America and some scheduled from the Orient during the year. But, as every track operator in Texas knows, Sam Houston is crying for slots - surrounded by tracks with slots in Louisiana, Arkansas, and New Mexico, which are jeopardizing the future of Texas racing.

In addition to these thumbnail sketches of tracks in different climates and different levels of competition, I was struck by one thing that horseplayers everywhere should strongly consider. Whenever I left one track for another, I realized that a glimpse of live racing helped my handicapping at the next stop. In other words, there is a lot to be gained from getting out from the living room or away from your computer or favorite offtrack wagering site. Try visiting your friendly neighborhood racetrack, or better still, try a trip to one a bit farther away.