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You gotta have heart
By JAMES QUINN
A horse entered in a race longer than seven furlongs should show a race within the last calendar month plus at least two workouts in the meantime.
- Tom Ainslie, "The Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing," 1968
They were cheapies, Cal-bred maiden fillies and mares, 3-year-old and up, going six furlongs, but when the posted times for the first Polytrack sprint at Del Mar were 47 seconds for four furlongs and 1:14 for six, every handicapper on the scene understood the game as they had known it would no longer be the same.
This may have been the slowest six furlongs ever run in the Golden State. The race was won by an off-the-pace runner three lengths back at the first call and three lengths back at the second call.
No routes had been carded, but at the end of the day the five sprints on Polytrack on average revealed a daily track variant of slow 14 - or 14 lengths slower than the average time for the same sprints of 2006. The four-furlong fractional variant was roughly slow 9.
The headaches for figure analysts grew worse the next day, when four routes were carded, two at a mile and two at 1 1/16 miles. A split variant revealed the pair of miles to be slow 12 and the pair of 1o1/16-mile races to be - gulp! - slow 20. The six-furlong variant for the 1 1/16-mile races - and this part is even harder to digest - was slow 21.
In the seventh-race feature, a $100,000 optional claming-classified allowance route for 3-year-old and up Cal-breds, the fractional and final-time variants, respectively, were slow 24 and slow 21.
In effect, the routes beyond the mile had been run approximately 40-plus lengths slower than normal. Two days into the meet where the turf meets the surf it looked like really rough surfing for figure handicappers, and much rougher surfing for handicappers who look to combinations of speed and pace figures for an edge.
The good news perhaps was that all four routes had been dominated by closers. The front-runners and pressers had expired as if in desperate need of oxygen. If the trend continued, a closers' bias in routes might represent a partial secret of beating the Polytrack this season at Del Mar.
And so the trend has continued. After seven racing days and 13 routes, nine had been won by closers and the other four by pressers. Not a single route had been won wire to wire, and the front-runners typically had finished up the course, or out of the exacta, trifecta, and even the superfecta. The outcomes provide a ray of hope to trip handicappers in thrall to biases, and, to a degree, to all of us.
Something else, however, has been far more significant during the early stage of Polytrack at Del Mar, and it has affected the closers severely, too. The slow and slower times that reflect a tiring and more tiring surface has restored a long-lost premium on current form and conditioning. Testimony on the matter has emerged quickly from a source typically overrated to the unfortunate fault by racegoers, and of negligible value to skeptical handicappers, the horsemen themselves.
Commenting on the chances of Buzzards Bay in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 2 San Diego Handicap of July 22, trainer Ron Ellis observed that his even-money favorite might be a bit short of top condition. Ellis had observed how tiring the Polytrack had appeared the first three days. Buzzards Bay promptly jumped to an uncontested lead in inordinately slow fractions (slow 18), and just as promptly faded to oblivion when the real running began. The even-money favorite did not hit the exacta, trifecta, or superfecta.
The Grade 2 race was won by Sun Boat, a recent Mike Mitchell claim of $50,000 who had never won a stakes. Sun Boat ran last of nine until the top of the stretch, well beaten, but rallied between horses while five wide to run them down and win by a length. To be fair, two races after the Mitchell claim, Sun Boat had lost to Buzzards Bay in the Grade 2 Californian at Hollywood Park on Cushion Track at 25-1 by a nose. The ex-claimer 5-year-old gelding was a genuine contender in the San Diego Handicap, for older handicap horses.
Buzzards Bay was making the third start of his 5-year-old campaign, the first two in Grade 2's. The second was a nose victory in the Californian on June 2. He had not started in the 49 days, exactly seven weeks. Still, Buzzards Bay had won not only the Californian, but also the rich Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap at 4, and the richer Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby at 3. No handicapper expected, or should have expected, Buzzards Bay to run out of breath so prematurely on the Polytrack.
Another Grade 2 winner in the San Diego Handicap was the Bruce Headley-trained Arson Squad, who had won the Grade 2 Strub Stakes, limited to new 4-year-olds at Santa Anita, and the Grade 2 Swaps at 3 at Hollywood Park, but had not started since Feb. 3.
Arson Squad moved mildly along the inside in the upper stretch and tired badly. Another Grade 2 winner in the field, Awesome Gem, who had won Santa Anita's San Fernando, another stakes limited to new 4-year-olds, had started twice since March 3, most recently a win under second-level allowance conditions at Hollywood Park on June 23.
Awesome Gem at least had run impressively - a winning race, in fact - within 30 days of the San Diego Handicap. And although the 4-year-old gelding would not win the Grade 2, he looked to be in peaking form entering the race - and he did finish a struggling second from off the pace. Of the three Grade 2 winners, only the horse in good current form that had raced within the past 30 days managed to finish in the money.
As the opening weekend's races continued to run their course, the buzz at trackside from horsemen and insiders intimated the horses were coming back exhausted. One insider assured me more than an occasional runner had returned to the stall and immediately had lain down to recover. However exaggerated the stories might have been - or not - it's plain that several horses that ran on Del Mar's Polytrack returned atypically fatigued.
So while handicappers at Del Mar that exhibit a preference for closers at the route will be working with the probabilities, the same handicappers may be even more demanding that the horses are impressive on current form and condition. The post-modern tendency for horses to return from extended layoffs, up to a year at times, and win regardless, may be suspended for the seven weeks on the Del Mar Polytrack.
Here is a short laundry list of potential toss-outs on form:
* Any horse going a route that has not started within the past 60 days.
* Any horse without experience at the route and now stretching out from sprint to route.
* Front-runners and pressers that can be expected to engage in a pace duel, or to set or press unusually fast fractions, sprint or route.
* Two-year-olds making their debut on Polytrack, unless the workout pattern is impressively long and sharp, and the trainers tend to win with first-time starters.
On the final point, the most impressive
2-year-old winner in the first seven days was a Bob Baffert-trained firster with a string of quintessential Baffert works - fast, faster, and fastest. Even so, the filly, More Happy, was fully extended to win, and she needed the stamina provided by every one of Baffert's swift and long workouts. Among the juveniles, prefer workouts that are regular, longer, and faster.
Of the first 11 sprints for the juveniles, front-runners won four, pressers three, and closers four. Although front-runners and pressers have won a fair share of the Polytrack sprints, if the inexperienced 2-year-olds run too fast to the pace call, or find themselves engaged in pace duels, they will have an exceptionally good chance to lose, even at the commonly run dash distance of 5 1/2 furlongs.
Despite the closer's bias in routes, and the tendency of horses in short form to disappoint, the outcomes at Del Mar so far have not reflected the same aspect of chaos so typical of the upsets on Hollywood's Cushion Track. Favorites and low-priced contenders have won their rightful share, or greater. Unpredictable form reversals have been few. Paradoxically perhaps, the deep closers at fantastic prices that so frequently overhauled the tiring front-runners on Cushion Track at Hollywood Park so far have not been as prominent in the stretch on Polytrack, in sprints especially. They have continued to lag too long.
As long as that trend perseveres, the optimistic prediction of a handicapping colleague that Del Mar is likely to experience a record-breaking six-day pick six carryover might not come to pass. And so it came to pass also, on the eighth day of racing, that a front-runner has just rambled wire to wire at a mile. The Polytrack may tighten, the times may improve in a way that resembles normalcy, and the closers' bias in routes may disappear.
As ever, when basic change has occurred, handicappers are best urged to compile their track profiles day to day. It takes all of five minutes. Do it.