09/01/2005 12:00AM

What to expect from Polytrack


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Wondering how the introduction of a Polytrack racing surface will affect the Turfway Park meet, which begins Wednesday? Look no further than the workout tab. For the week ending on Wednesday, 144 horses worked over the Polytrack surface there - an increase of 500 percent compared to a year ago at Turfway, when 24 horses had published works in the final week of August.

Not even stock in Google generates increases like that. And the good news is, more than horses and those associated with them figure to benefit from the surface. So, too, should Kentucky horseplayers. The reason? A busier barn area could lead to full fields and improved racing.

Irrespective of whether the new, partially synthetic surface proves virtually impervious to harsh weather, as those associated with it claim - the implementation of Polytrack is likely to be a success, if for no other reason that it is immensely popular with horsemen. Many believe its waxed blend of sand, carpet fibers, and rubber makes it more forgiving on horses.

Kentucky horseplayers, as well as horsemen, could use this shot in the arm. After a long, almost painful summer of racing at Ellis Park - where purses were dropped and short fields were commonplace - the opportunity to bet a few full fields a day would be a welcomed relief.

To tell you how poor the racing has been in Kentucky this summer, consider that on Wednesday, following a couple days of rain that resulted in four races being taken off turf, a total of 53 horses raced at Ellis Park on the nine-race program, an average of under six starters per race. Even at times when the weather has been decent at Ellis Park, there have been days when not a single allowance race has filled.

Last year Turfway averaged about 8.5 starters per race. Given the increased morning workload in recent days, I would not be surprised to see Turfway pick up an extra starter a race. Additionally, Turfway could maintain field size as a result of fewer weather-related scratches, if indeed Polytrack holds up as well to precipitation as its makers and distributors claim.

Similarly, the quality of racing figures to rise. Stall applications were up, which allowed Turfway to improve the quality of the stables based ontrack. Just this week, horses trained by Dale Romans and Joe Woodard, two of the leading trainers from the Churchill Downs spring meet, had horses work over the surface.

Because Turfway will become the first North American track to race over Polytrack, it is difficult to forecast how it will play. What we know is what British observers have said about the surface, which was first introduced for racing at Lingfield Park in the United Kingdom in 2001. Wolverhampton, also in the United Kingdom, now races on Polytrack as well.

James Willoughby, a journalist with the Racing Post and analyst with the cable and satellite channel Racing U.K., wrote in a report to Keeneland and Turfway officials that the Polytrack racing should offer more of a "a crossover of runners between dirt and turf, which will provide for more competitive races at conditions levels."

Beyond turf horses being more comfortable over a Polytrack surface than they would over a traditional dirt surface, I am not expecting dramatic differences between Polytrack and a regular dirt track.

Although billed as a bias-free surface, it is difficult to envision a surface that doesn't favor speed to some extent. The reason is that good horses are typically quick horses. They go to the front because they can.

The importance of speed was illustrated in the three trial races that Turfway ran on the Polytrack surface Aug. 24. Front-runners dominated.

My initial handicapping strategy for the Polytrack surface is to slightly favor speed, in much the same way one might analyze a race at Churchill Downs, which is less speed-biased than Keeneland, for example.

I would further anticipate that the Polytrack surface might produce times about on par with those from last meet. Workout times over the last week at Turfway have been about the same as the times a year ago.

If what horsemen say is true - that Polytrack is kinder and gentler on horses - expect Turfway-based runners to have an advantage over ship ins. Keeneland-based runners, who can train over a Polytrack surface on the training track there, also would figure to perform well.

The cumulative effect of training every day over a more forgiving surface should leave horses healthier and more likely to perform at their peak level in much the same way that a person becomes healthier eating a low-fat diet on a daily basis, as opposed to every once and a while.

Beyond that advantage, horses training on Polytrack simply will have more familiarity with the surface - a key with horses, which are creatures of habit.