07/16/2009 11:00PM

Year 3 on Poly: Altered states


DEL MAR, Calif. - Well-prepared horseplayers still welcome the annual headfirst dive into Del Mar. But things are different now in California.

It seems sharks are everywhere. Whether splashing around in the Pacific Ocean or betting horses nearby on the main track at Del Mar, it is a good idea to stick a toe in the water before jumping in all the way. These days, there is always a surprise.

Synthetic surfaces have altered the fundamentals of handicapping, and principles once considered absolute are now only provisional. Don't believe it? Try cashing a bet on a front-runner in a one-mile race on Polytrack.

Three years ago when Del Mar was dirt, 34 percent of one-mile races were won by the pacesetter. No more. In two summers since the track went synthetic, only 17 percent of one-mile races have been won on the lead (14 percent in 2007, 20 percent in 2008).

No big deal, right? Handicappers can adjust. And if speed is such a liability around two turns, a logical approach would be to back come-from-behind runners at a mile or more. It sure sounds like a good idea. After all, the first season of Polytrack in 2007, none of the 22 races at 1 1/16 miles was won by the pacesetter.

Then along came 2008, the second year of Polytrack, and it was a different story again. Six of the 20 races at 1 1/16 miles were won wire to wire. Why? It might have been a quicker surface, altered strategy, random chance, or a combination of all three.

Synthetic is weird stuff, and bettors playing California races continue to be challenged by the shifting nuances of Polytrack at Del Mar, Cushion Track at Hollywood Park, and Pro-Ride at Santa Anita. They are not similar. Generally speaking, the dirt-like Cushion Track at Hollywood is more conducive to speed than Polytrack at Del Mar.

The Hollywood-to-Del Mar analysis will be a key point early in the meet. Most starters the first three weeks of Del Mar will be shippers from Hollywood, and a sharp front-runner on Cushion Track may or may not hold his form on Polytrack.

The program at Del Mar consists of 75 percent main-track races and the remainder on turf. Bettors may consider casting a wider net this summer on Polytrack because the declining win rate of synthetic-surface favorites suggests handicappers have not figured it out quite yet.

In 2007, favorites won 32 percent on Polytrack (89 for 280). In 2008, favorites won only 30 percent on Polytrack (85 for 283). It has been more than a decade (31 percent in 1998) since main-track favorites won at such a low rate at Del Mar. The decline might be coincidence. The win rate of main-track favorites has been on a steady decline at Del Mar for three years. Or maybe, Polytrack is simply less predictable. The combined rate during two Del Mar seasons of Polytrack racing is the lowest two-year total since at least 1991.

Winning favorites at Del Mar

Meet Polytrack Turf
2008 30 44
2007 32 34
Meet Dirt Turf
2006 35 37
2005 38 34

The 2009 Del Mar meet is the third on Polytrack, a surface that was expected to reduce injuries, play consistently, and ease maintenance. There is no conclusive evident those goals have been reached yet, but it has become clear that some handicapping fundamentals need revision.

The two-year Polytrack reality is an increase in surprises and fewer front-running winners around two turns. Yet the game has not become a full-blown crapshoot. Favorites still win at least 3 out of 10, sprinters can carry their speed, and the principles of class and condition still apply, perhaps now more than ever.

Speed and pace once were the most predictive factors in Southern California. But that was on dirt. Speed and pace are less foretelling on synthetic, and horseplayers who accept that fact will improve their chance for a successful season. But darn, old habits sure die hard.

There is little doubt that Polytrack has diminished the handicapping significance of speed and final time. It was Damon Runyon who wrote, "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that is the way to bet." It was sage advice, way back when.

Based on final times, Polytrack 2007 and 2008 were as different as night and day. In 2007, the average time for a Del Mar six-furlong race was a painstaking 1:12.88. The track sped up by more than two seconds in 2008, when the average time of a six-furlong race was 1:10.64. The discrepancy applied across all class levels.

The difference was even more pronounced in routes. In 2007, the average time for a one-mile race on Polytrack was 1:41.28. Sun dial, anyone? The track sped up by more than 3 1/2 seconds in 2008, when the average time of a one-mile race was 1:37.71.

How did the surface quicken that significantly? According to Tom Robbins, Del Mar racing secretary, the culprit was water. Not a drop of water was applied to the surface in 2007, and while horsemen considered the surface to be safe, the slow race times frustrated many. The main complaint was there were two different surfaces - a fast track during cool morning training hours and a slow bog during warm afternoon races.

Del Mar improved track-speed consistency in 2008 by adding water. However, it came with a hidden cost as the injury rate increased in training hours.

"In trying to get to more standard times, our feedback was that the morning was a little less kind in year 2 than year 1," Robbins said. "Water acts as a binder and allowed for quicker times in the afternoon, but it had a negative impact on how the track was in the morning" from a safety perspective.

Despite the setback, Robbins said the Del Mar main track the last two seasons has been the "safest in 30 years." As part of an ongoing process to improve safety and quality, big changes are in store for 2009. The quality issue, which also is related to the economic decline, has been addressed by scaling back the number of races.

The summer meet remains seven weeks (July 22 through Sept. 9), but with a reduced number of racing days - down to 37 from a customary 43. Mondays have been dropped; Tuesdays are always dark. It trims the week from six days to five. The racing week will be Wednesday through Sunday; the only Monday card is Labor Day, Sept. 7.

Even with the shortened week, the tentative meet schedule calls for only 28 fewer races. Del Mar normally runs 371 races; this year it will schedule 343. Wednesday and Friday programs will have nine races instead of eight; Sundays will have 10 races instead of nine. Thursdays (eight) and Saturdays (10) remain the same. Approximately 2,200 horses will be stabled on the Del Mar grounds. The extra day off will alleviate pressure on the racing office.

"I'm hoping it allows us to offer a better product," Robbins said. "With that day off, it allows better spacing between certain races, which we haven't had the luxury of doing. Instead of an allowance race being used on a Monday and bringing it back in 14 days, we can bring it back in 17 or 18 days. It allows more comfortable spacing."

For season-long bettors, the shortened week affords a two-day freshener from live racing. Simulcast wagering will be offered on Mondays beginning Aug. 3. And two days off will give ontrack bettors plenty of time to contemplate the nuances of Polytrack, year 3.

Robbins believes the 2009 main track will more closely resemble the fast 2008 surface than the slow 2007. Del Mar will reduce the amount of water it applies while simultaneously introducing a new piece of maintenance equipment called a cultivator. The absence of water in 2007 caused the surface to become deeper and slower in warm afternoons. The addition of water in 2008 sped up the track but produced a training-hours morning surface that was less kind.

The hope for 2009 is that less water, in conjunction with new equipment, will produce consistent race times in the afternoon and safe training in the morning.

"Initially, we'll be backing off on the water," Robbins said. "There will be less water."

Officials are optimistic the cultivator will help consistency and safety. The equipment is pulled by a tractor and fluffs the surface more so than a Gallop Master, the usual maintenance device used on synthetic. The cultivator was used at Woodbine and this summer at Arlington when the track became quicker than trainers preferred.

The cultivator at Arlington slowed workout times; horsemen said it produced a surface that was less jarring than the fast surface in cool mornings. Del Mar currently is determining how often the cultivator will be used, and when.

As the meet unfolds, handicappers must pay attention to the frequency and timing of cultivator maintenance, in addition to watering schedule and weather patterns. It's a lot to keep track of, even before analyzing horses. As for historical analysis of Polytrack running styles, modifications to the maintenance procedure complicate the process.

What happened at Del Mar the first two years of Polytrack may or may not apply this summer. Early speed in 2008 was effective in main-track sprints: 25 percent of six-furlong races were won in gate-to-wire fashion and 45 percent were won by a horse within two lengths of the lead after the first quarter-mile. In 2007 on the slower surface, 18 percent were won by the pacesetter but 61 percent won from within two lengths.

It can be risky to draw conclusions from just two seasons of racing on Polytrack. There have been only slightly more than 200 six-furlong races at Del Mar since the installation of synthetic.

While it will be necessary to monitor bias as the meet unfolds, there is nothing wrong about entering a season with a few preconceived notions. That is, as long as one is willing to revise an opinion based on fresh evidence.

Main-track turns at Del Mar are banked only 3 percent. The relative flatness (banking at other tracks varies from 4 to 6 percent) might be one reason inside posts produced a higher percentage of 2008 winners in short sprints and short routes. Horses that race near the rail are less affected by gravitational force pushing down. Conversely, horses racing outside on the turn have less gravity propelling them forward into the stretch.

Posts 1-8 averaged 11.6 percent winners at 5 1/2 and six furlongs. It was nearly double the 6.5 percent win rate of posts 9-12. In longer sprints (6 1/2 to seven furlongs) win percent was similar regardless of inside or outside posts.

Two-turn races produced comparable results. At one mile, posts 1-6 averaged 15 percent winners while posts 7-12 averaged only 6 percent winners. And at 1 1/16 miles, only one winner (from 28 runners) started outside post 7.

While it remains to be seen if year-old pace and post statistics will continue to apply, one likely constant is the form profiles of winners. Even with the shortened five-day week, there is no escaping the reality that bottom-of-the-barrel $25,000 maiden claimers are the most prevalent class on the circuit. Del Mar is no exception. Last summer, 34 races were run at the maiden-25 level. They made up 9 percent of all races.

Even on Polytrack, maiden-25 males run true to form. This was particularly true last summer; 14 of the 16 winners paid less than $10. The median payoff was $6.20, and the majority of maiden-25 male winners were racing at the bottom for the first time.

The class-drop angle was most effective the first half of the meet - 8 of the first 11 maiden-25 sprints (males) were droppers; three others previously finished second at the level. Early in the season, Hollywood droppers from maiden-32 and -40 will be tough to beat.

Speed is always effective in maiden-25 sprints at Del Mar. A front-runner who earned a Beyer Figure of 70 or higher in his most recent start, at any track, should be considered a contender.

Maiden-25 sprints for fillies and mares also are dominated by droppers; last year 6 of 10 were won by a horse falling in class. The high payoff was $17.80 on a maiden-32 dropper with speed. Beyer Figures were less predictive. Half the maiden-25 sprints were won by a filly or mare that earned less than a 60 last out. The median payoff was $8.60.

First-time starters have been a low-

percent play at the maiden-25 level since Polytrack was installed. Only 3 of 51 sprints for both genders were won by rookies; two were trained by Carla Gaines.

Route races for maiden-25s have provided more fireworks. Three of the four maiden-25 routes for males last summer returned $10 or higher; the three filly-mare maiden-25s produced payoffs of $20 or higher. These are slow horses, and in 2007, two of four maiden-25 routes for males were won by maidens with 19 and 21 losses.

While maiden-25 sprints tend to be predictable, nothing compares to five-furlong turf sprints at Del Mar. The 2008 season was a virtual chalk-fest: favorites won 12 of the 19 turf races. Del Mar added turf sprints to its racing program in 2003. Six years later, chalk is the way to go.

The overall win rate for favorites in turf sprints is 43 percent (33 for 76). Even before the unusually high win rate for 2008 favorites, turf-sprint favorites won at a 38 percent clip. Horses with tactical speed usually dominate. The 2007 meet included a string of eight consecutive front-running winners, and in 2008 most winners were forwardly placed.

Route races on Polytrack can be problematic for conventional handicappers; creative thinking is encouraged. During the 2008 meet, there were 31 routes for male winners, ranging from nonwinners-of-two $12,500 claiming, all the way to the Grade 1 Pacific Classic won by Go Between.

With the Polytrack reputation as a track that favors closers, it seems counterintuitive in a route race to back a horse stretching from a sprint. Yet last summer, 5 of the 31 routes for male winners were won by stretch-outs. Caution also is required before taking a negative stand based on declining speed figures. Nearly half the routes for male winners last year were won by a horse whose last-start Beyer was lower than the race before.

There were 15 route races last summer for fillies and mares on Polytrack; eight were won by horses whose most recent start was on grass. Only a handful of male route races for winners were won turf-to-Poly.

All five $10,000 claiming sprints for males last year were won by an obvious contender in sharp form, and even the $28.60 victory Aug. 22 by Smudgeledo was not difficult to find in hindsight. In his previous start, he dueled on a hot pace before tiring. Smudgeledo was ridden to victory by Garrett Gomez.

The jockey race figures to be hotly contested in 2009. Gomez was the leading percentage rider last summer at 21 percent, 34 for 160. However, sheer volume allowed Rafael Bejarano and Joel Rosario to lead the standings. Bejarano won 45 of 238 (18 percent) to take the title by 9 over Rosario (36 for 254, a win rate of 14 percent).

None of the top 12 riders last summer generated a flat-bet profit. Aaron Gryder won 12 of 105, a win rate of 11 percent, and though he ranked 13th, Gryder produced a return on investment of $2.89 for each $2 win bet.

After two full seasons of Polytrack racing at Del Mar, handicappers and horsemen are still learning. For some, seven weeks in summer is a matter of survival. For others, it is the promise of profit.

All that anyone has to do is be prepared, and then be right.