Updated on 09/16/2011 9:01AM

Whither old-fashioned bias?

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - There used to be a simple key to making money at Saratoga, and every serious horseplayer recognized it. That key was the track itself.

The racing surface was often so speed-favoring and rail-favoring that the horse who popped out of the gate first was the probable winner. This bias was especially profitable because the horses who ran here in August had been racing in July at Belmont Park, where the rail was frequently bad and front-runners wilted. Horses with bad-looking form at Belmont would win at Saratoga and pay big prices. What a beautiful world it was.

Bettors think wistfully about the good old days because those recurrent, strong biases have largely disappeared. Saratoga still has occasional speed-favoring days, but they are seldom all-powerful, and Belmont's racing strip is uniform much of the time, too.

These changes in New York are mirrored at major racetracks across the country. The Southern California tracks used to be renowned for their speed-favoring tendencies, but now no type of runner has a distinct edge. Horses on the rail at Pimlico possessed an insuperable advantage for many years, but not any more. What has happened to track biases, which used to be such a crucial factor in the sport?

I put that question to three track superintendents: Jerry Porcelli of the New York Racing Association; John Passero of the Maryland Jockey Club; and Steve Wood of Del Mar and Santa Anita. All agreed with the premise that biases have diminished, and they generally agreed on the reasons. Track superintendents are paying more attention to biases and using better techniques to cope with them.

In the past, those in charge of racetracks refused to acknowledge that their tracks might be unfair. Horses hugging the rail could win every race on a Pimlico card, but general manager Chick Lang would still insist that the bias was a figment of degenerate gamblers' imaginations. Even today, Wood said, "Some people in this business don't believe in biases." But the superintendents at top tracks now pay close attention when certain post positions or running styles dominate their races.

"We're a lot more conscious of biases," said Passero. "There has been a lot of press about them and it has made guys more aware of it." Passero was hired by the late Frank De Francis with a mandate to get rid of the Pimlico bias, which had turned the Preakness into a fluky race. He has largely succeeded in exterminating these unfair conditions, as have many of his counterparts.

While biases sometimes seem to appear for inexplicable reasons, tracks are usually influenced by two important factors: the slope of the racing strip and the moisture in it. "It's not a steep slope," Porcelli said, "but you'd be amazed by the amount of material that makes it to the inside." Left untended, the rail would be deep and disadvantageous. As a result Porcelli and his crew "grade" the track every day, running harrows over it to maintain a certain depth of the cushion. A man with a measuring stick follows the equipment to verify that depth is the same, inside and out.

Because of the slope of the track, water makes its way toward the inside, too, sometimes making the dirt near the rail tighter and firmer. "When we come out of a period of rain," Porcelli said, "we don't have as much control over the track." A couple of wet days preceded the racing card at Saratoga on Aug. 4 and created a powerful rail-favoring bias, one that allowed Medaglia d'Oro to take the lead on the rail in the Jim Dandy Stakes and win by 13 3/4 lengths.

Days such as Aug. 4 create profitable opportunities for alert handicappers, who will upgrade horses with wide trips over the biased track while downgrading big performances of horses who were on the rail (such as Medaglia d'Oro). But now the track superintendent observes such conditions as carefully as the bettors. Porcelli quickly recognized what was happening, and by the next day he had Saratoga back to normal.

Track superintendents have overcome biases not only by paying more attention to them but also, in many cases, by developing better racing surfaces. "One reason that there are fewer biases is the choice of materials in the last 10 years," Passero said. "Tracks are sandier, but with body, and the mixture we use now is much more forgiving - particularly if you have too much or too little water."

Even though they may have more awareness and better tools than their counterparts of the past, modern track superintendents agree that maintaining an even track is a constant battle. Every track has its idiosyncrasies. Wood says that dry, windy weather makes Santa Anita speed-favoring, and that a half-percent increase in the moisture content of the Del Mar strip can turn the rail into a bog. Porcelli says humidity affects the track at Saratoga and that Belmont changes when the wind is blowing a certain way.

As a result there is no magic formula for keeping a racetrack uniform. "It is not as much a science as it is an art," Porcelli said. "Otherwise, we'd be closer to being perfect."

(c) 2002, The Washington Post