Three years into the synthetic&#45;surface era, the Del Mar handicapping puzzle remains an unsolved summer mystery. That is strange. By now, one might think bettors would have it all figured out.But the challenge of picking winners on synthetic surfaces has proven more difficult than anyone imagined.Most of the time, the public does a darn good job predicting the outcome of races. Based on the key handicapping factors &ndash; condition, class, speed and pace &ndash; the universal win rate of post&#45;time favorites is more than one in three. The rate actually ticked upward in 2009, when favorites won 36.6 percent of all Thoroughbred races in the U.S. and Canada.But things change, sometimes dramatically. Since Del Mar replaced its dirt track and installed the synthetic Polytrack in 2007, handicappers have stumbled. Over the past three seasons on the Del Mar main track, favorites are less reliable. The public is having a tough time picking winners.It is not whining, folks. Horseplayers accept some chaos. A million things can happen in a race. But random chance has become increasingly relevant. The decline of winning favorites on the Del Mar main track suggests bettors this summer should prepare to loosen up.Win percent of favoritesDel Mar main trackYear\t\tPercent\t\tWinning favorites&#45;overall races2005 (dirt)\t38 pct\t\t104&#45;2732006 (dirt)\t35 pct\t\t96&#45;2712007 (Poly)\t32 pct\t\t89&#45;2802008 (Poly)\t30 pct\t\t85&#45;2832009 (Poly)\t30 pct\t\t78&#45;258While the Del Mar main&#45;track chalk has waned, the percent of winning favorites remained constant at the meet that precedes Del Mar. The past three spring&#45;summer race meets at Hollywood Park (2007&#45;2009), the win percent of main&#45;track favorites was 36, 32 and 34.&ldquo;We are keenly aware of it,&rdquo; Del Mar director of racing Tom Robbins said, referring to the decline in winning favorites. &ldquo;It is important, and I am hopeful we jump up. It has been difficult to get a handle on it.&rdquo;Yes, handicappers have been slow to catch on. The declining win rate of favorites is accompanied by a corresponding decline in return on investment. A horseplayer who wagered on every main&#45;track favorite last summer at Del Mar would have won back only $1.48 for each $2 win bet ($383.20 returned from 258 main&#45;track races).Bettors able to figure where the public is making mistakes (over&#45;betting obvious favorites) will be one step ahead.The dynamic will be interesting to follow this summer because the local population has produced an inordinately high rate of winning favorites in recent weeks. Through early July on the main track at Hollywood Park, favorites were winning at a 40&#45;percent clip.The choices for horseplayers this summer in Southern California are to reduce wagering handle, or dive in. Fans that have read this far probably will approach the season the same as this writer. It is summer, and it is time to wade in. It is time to play.Unfortunately, there are no hidden answers to a winning season. Mysteries take time to solve. All that a horseplayer can do is ease into summer with broad expectations. And whether or not handicappers like synthetic surfaces, there is plenty to look forward to this summer at Del Mar.The 2010 meet is historic in a sense because Del Mar soon may become a bigger player on the circuit. The track is under consideration to become the future home of the Oak Tree Racing Association, which conducts a five&#45; to six&#45;week meet at Santa Anita every fall. Santa Anita ownership recently stated it will not lease the track to Oak Tree after this autumn. Del Mar is first in line to host the 2011 Oak Tree meet.If Del Mar will conduct two meets next year (one summer, one fall), handicappers have greater incentive now to re&#45;acquaint with Polytrack. Bettors are advised to leave plenty of wiggle room. There are no absolutes. As for this summer, changes include a wagering&#45;menu adjustment and a main track with new material and a new man in charge.PICK FOUR WAGERINGA key modification for 2010 is a tweak in the wagering menu. The minimum bet size on the pick four has been lowered from $1 to 50 cents. Is it a big deal? Yes, and it is good news for horseplayers.The pick four was added to the Southern California wagering menu in fall 2000 and has evolved into one of the most enjoyable and popular wagers on the menu. During the 2009 meet, the pick four accounted for 4.39 percent of overall Del Mar handle ($5.78 million wagered on pick four, $131.66 million total handle). Officials believe a reduction in the minimum bet size will produce increased handle.The bet will become more appealing with a 50&#45;cent minimum because of affordability and tax ramifications. Reasonably serious horseplayers in Southern California consider a daily investment of $80 to $100 suitable to attack the $1 pick four. That amount is cost&#45;prohibitive for many. But at 50 cents, an all&#45;out attack would require only $40 to $50.Almost half the $1 pick&#45;four payoffs in 2009 at Del Mar were more than $1,000. Offered daily on the last four races, the median payoff last summer was $965 (half the payoffs were less, half were more). It is a wager that small&#45;bankrolled bettors have a realistic chance to cash, this year more than ever.Yet the main benefit to the reduced minimum bet size is reduced paperwork (&ldquo;signers&rdquo;) and effectively raising the 25 percent withholding threshold from $5,000 to $10,000.According to the Internal Revenue Service, &ldquo;Reportable Gambling Winnings&rdquo; initiate when winnings are $600 or more and at least 300 times the amount of the wager. Last summer, 22 of the 37 pick four payoffs were (reportable) signers, with payoffs more than $600.The good news is the same guidelines ($600 and 300 times the wager) apply at 50 cents. Therefore, a winning 50&#45;cent pick four is not a signer unless it returns $600. That is the equivalent of $1,200 for $1. Pick four bettors can avoid paperwork, and avoid declared income, by betting in 50&#45;cent increments rather than $1.For the occasional jackpot, the smaller bet size offers even greater advantage. When a wager pays $5,000 or more, it is subject to 25 percent withholding of $1,250 or more. That money is removed from available wagering capital. However, by making 50&#45;cent wagers rather than $1, a bettor can raise the withholding threshold to $10,000 ($5,000 for 50 cents).At Del Mar in 2009, four pick fours returned between $5,000 and $10,000. Of course, high payoffs will only occur if the series includes upsets. Last summer, 28 of the 344 total races were won by horses that returned $30 or more.THE SURFACEThree times as many races were run on the main track last summer as on turf (258 races on Polytrack, 86 on grass). The problem is no one can be sure how the Polytrack surface will play in 2010, the fourth season with the surface. Based on the first three summers, it is little more than guesswork to predict potential biases.Last summer on Polytrack, two&#45;turn speed was acceptable. At least it was early in the meet. While run&#45;them&#45;ragged&#45;thefts occur less frequently on synthetic as on traditional dirt, Polytrack front&#45;runners who were able to ration their speed could wire the field. The first three weeks of the 2009 meet, eight of the 25 route races were won by the pacesetter.But then, things changed. From Aug. 9 forward, it became difficult to win a two&#45;turn Polytrack race on the front end, regardless of pace. Over the final four weeks, only 3 of 43 Polytrack route races were won by the pacesetter. The shift was subtle. Even when front&#45;runners began losing their punch as the meet progressed, generally speaking, Polytrack was not blatantly biased. Horses repeatedly won route races from a forward position, as long as the horse was not setting the pace.In six&#45;furlong sprint races last summer on Polytrack, the track generally played fair. One would not expect the profile to change with an additional half&#45;furlong. But it did. Six and one&#45;half furlong races were undeniably speed&#45;friendly. Exactly half the races at the distance (21 of 42) were won by horses positioned within one length of the lead after the opening quarter mile. Will the trend continue for 2010?Like other synthetic surfaces, tje Del Mar main track changes. And the 2010 meet is almost like starting over.Del Mar has replaced track superintendent Steve Wood with former Santa Anita track superintendent Richard Tedesco. Informal consensus suggests most trainers support the move. Tedesco &ldquo;has the confidence of the horsemen,&rdquo; said Del Mar director of racing Robbins. That was not always the case with Wood.Tedesco will alter maintenance at Del Mar, seeking a safe surface consistent in morning workouts and afternoon races. Tedesco believes he can achieve uniformity with water, but at Del Mar he will walk a fine line. A year ago, the upshot of adding water in late morning and during afternoon races was the perception of horsemen the track was less kind during workout hours.Last year, Robbins said &ldquo;the view was the residual effects of (water) had some affect on how it behaved in the morning.&rdquo; He said Tedesco may tinker with renovation schedule, although exactly what the maintenance schedule will be was undetermined as of early July. Tedesco, who is credited with salvaging Santa Anita&rsquo;s beleaguered main track in winter, will work closely with horsemen.Additionally, Del Mar added new material to the racing surface in spring. This is news because it was the first substantive addition to the main track since it was completed in 2007.&ldquo;We added additional fiber in the spring, and it has restored some life to it,&rdquo; Robbins said. &ldquo;It was sort of on the dead side; it needs to have some of the rebound.&rdquo;If the refurbishing material achieves the objective by adding bounce, then handicappers might expect the track will favor off&#45;the&#45;pace runners early in the meet. That is merely an educated guess based on the idea that fresh, newly installed synthetic surfaces generally promote late&#45;runners. New synthetic surfaces often play like turf courses. That is, the field crawls around and then blasts home. The best finisher wins it. If the addition of the new fiber material brings life to the surface, then it might play like new.Yet even on surfaces that are anti&#45;speed, jockeys often compensate by slowing the pace to a maddening crawl. That is one of the main challenges to handicapping the synthetic surfaces at Del Mar and Santa Anita. Pace analysis can be unpredictable. The exception is Cushion Track at Hollywood Park, which is perceived as the fairest of the circuit&rsquo;s three major synthetic surfaces.The bottom line is there is likely to be greater positional movement from the back half of the field at Del Mar than there was at Hollywood. This is important because the same horses will be racing at Del Mar. At Hollywood, at the most frequently used route distance of a mile and a sixteenth, more than 40 percent of the races were won by the pacesetter.Bettors might want to be more forgiving of the closers that spun their wheels at Hollywood while taking a possibly skeptical view of front&#45;running winners at Hollywood.But prepare to shift strategy at the first sign of change. Though composed of artificial material, synthetic tracks seem to have a life of their own.THE RACESDel Mar last summer carded an average of nearly one race a day at five and one&#45;half furlongs, all for 2&#45;year&#45;olds. Favorites delivered like clockwork &ndash; 15&#45;for&#45;29. All but one of the winning favorites had racing experience.It helps to recognize situations in which the chalk is dependable, and gauging reliability of 2&#45;year&#45;old favorites at five and one&#45;half furlongs is simple. They have experience, ran well, trained well, and run back against similar competition. Good efforts at Hollywood will lead to good races early in the Del Mar meet. Sometimes it is an easy game. The median win payoff last summer in five and one&#45;half furlong races was a mere $8.40.Another category that runs true to form is turf sprints. Fields are limited to eight starters and produce minimal wagering value over a course that last summer played fair to all styles. The median win price in a turf sprint was only $9.As for turf routes, they did not produce a significant bias worth addressing in pre&#45;season analysis. As for the quality of the local turf division one might ask, what quality? Now that Juddmonte Farms has abandoned California, the turf division out West is weak.For many years, one of the most interesting turf&#45;betting angles at Del Mar has been to support European shippers making their U.S. debut. Last summer, the Euro&#45;shipper angle produced Hermione&rsquo;s Magic ($17.60). The current quality of the local turf divisions mean any grass race is ripe for an upset by anything from anywhere else.Del Mar one year ago reduced its meet from 43 days to 37 racing days, a Wednesday&#45;through&#45;Sunday schedule that will continue this season. The only exception is Labor Day on Monday, Sept. 6. The meet begins Wednesday, July 21, and ends Wednesday, Sept. 8.The 2010 racing program will be similar to 2009, when the track reduced the total number of races from 371 to 344. The challenge facing Del Mar this season is the lower number of race&#45;ready horses.The Southern California horse inventory has declined from 3,800 one year ago to 2,800 now. Furthermore, director of racing Robbins expects fewer stables to relocate for summer. Robbins anticipates a 10 percent reduction in horses stabled on the grounds, from 2,200 a year ago to 2,000 this coming season.How will the reduction in race&#45;ready horses affect summer racing at Del Mar? &ldquo;To be honest, we might be a little softer quality&#45;wise,&rdquo; Robbins said. &ldquo;We dropped significant dollars from the stakes schedule, trying to keep the overnight purses fairly close to where we were last year.&rdquo; Del Mar trimmed its 42&#45;race stakes program by 10 percent, from $7.9 million in 2009 to $7.1 million for the 2010 season. The richest race of the meet remains the Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic on Saturday, Aug. 28.The pre&#45;season Pacific Classic favorite is Rail Trip, the top older male in California as of early summer. Rail Trip was scheduled to run July 10 in the Hollywood Gold Cup. The mile and one&#45;quarter Pacific Classic has been won recently by Richard&rsquo;s Kid ($50.80) in 2009, Go Between ($7.60 favorite in 2008), and Student Council ($48.80) in 2007.Zenyatta, the best horse in California of either gender, is more likely for the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes on Aug. 7, a race she won the last two years. At a mile and a sixteenth, the Hirsch is shorter than Zenyatta prefers. Last year she won by only a head.If she runs in the Hirsch, Zenyatta will carry 123 pounds, conceding four pounds to St Trinians, who almost beat Zenyatta at Hollywood Park while in receipt of nine pounds.While the Pacific Classic and the Hirsch are among the main&#45;track highlights, summer at Del Mar also is about 2&#45;year&#45;olds. The Grade 1, seven&#45;furlong Del Mar Futurity has returned to its traditional closing&#45;day spot on Wednesday Sept. 8; the Grade 1, seven&#45;furlong Del Mar Debutante for fillies will be run Sept. 4.The past two years, trainer John Sadler has unveiled some good ones. Sidney&rsquo;s Candy finished second by a head in his debut at 10&#45;1 while Dave in Dixie won first out at $17.60. Over two summers, Sadler is 5&#45;for&#45;16 with debut 2&#45;year&#45;olds.But when it comes to California summer 2&#45;year&#45;olds, Bob Baffert always holds a strong hand. He is 6&#45;for&#45;32 with first&#45;time starters the past three years and a 10&#45;time winner of the Futurity.