On New Artificial Surface, the Difference Is Real

By Andrew Beyer
Thursday, October 19, 2006

Racing fans from coast to coast have been observing the Keeneland meeting with intense interest. What is happening now in Lexington, Ky., may portend the future of the sport.

Keeneland replaced its traditional dirt track with a synthetic surface, Polytrack, heralding a revolution that could sweep the country. Turfway Park and Woodbine have also installed Polytrack, and all of California's thoroughbred tracks are converting to artificial surfaces, beginning with Hollywood Park next month. Most of the thoroughbred industry has accepted the premise that artificial surfaces are safer for the animals, and that their consistency makes races fairer, too.

Horseplayers understand that these changes are potentially crucial, and have been watching to determine their impact on handicapping. Do you handicap a Polytrack race as you would a dirt race, or is the synthetic track fundamentally different?

After nine days of racing at Keeneland, the answer to that question is indisputable. Polytrack is different -- profoundly different. At Keeneland it has given rise to a style of racing that is alien to most Americans. The most prized quality in thoroughbreds -- speed -- has become a liability. Polytrack has turned the sport upset down.

Since the first race on opening day, Oct. 6, it was evident that horses' form on dirt did not necessarily relate to their performance on Polytrack. Maizelle looked unbeatable in that maiden race, having earned a speed figure at Saratoga that was eight lengths faster than any of her rivals. But her superiority on dirt didn't help her on Polytrack. The odds-on favorite lost to a 31-to-1 shot who had done all of her previous racing on grass. It was nearly impossible to predict which dirt runners would do well on Polytrack and which would not. But one trend was recognizable: Turf runners often liked the synthetic surface. In the $500,000 Spinster Stakes, two of America's best and most consistent female dirt runners, Happy Ticket and Spun Sugar, both finished out of the money behind Asi Siempre, who had made all of her 14 previous starts on grass.

What does Polytrack have in common with grass? Nick Mordin, author of books about handicapping in England (where Polytrack originated), offered an explanation that sounds logical. "When a horse pushes back with his hind legs against dirt," Mordin says, "some of the surface slides away from his hooves and produces 'kickback.' But Polytrack produces almost no kickback at all. It is a more secure footing -- similar to grass." Mordin says horses with shorter strides and a low center of gravity are better suited to the slippery nature of dirt, while long-striding horses favor Polytrack and grass.

The similarity between Polytrack and grass has manifested itself in a crucial way at Keeneland. Every handicapper knows that turf races tend to favor horses with a late kick; riders usually reserve their mounts early, setting a slow pace, and turn them loose in the stretch.

By contrast, dirt races favor speed, and jockeys ride aggressively from the gate. One of the most notorious speed-favoring tracks in America was Keeneland, where fluky front-runners regularly benefited from the track bias and romped to victory in important races. Keeneland's executives wanted to rid their track of its reputation for unfairness, which is one of the reasons they chose to install Polytrack. Based on the early results, they did not succeed. They merely replaced the old bias with a different bias.

When Keeneland opened, many jockeys were riding with some of the aggressiveness that they would display on a dirt track. But trying to get the early lead proved to be a bad strategy at the new Keeneland. Of the first 48 races run over Polytrack, only one horse managed to lead all the way -- and he was an odds-on favorite with vastly superior form. Many outstanding, high-class speed horses were unable to win. After a week, the jockeys learned and adjusted. In Sunday's races, almost nobody was hustling in the early stages of the races. The Polytrack surface was extremely fast -- faster than souped-up dirt tracks -- and horses in route races should have been covering the first half mile in 47 seconds and six furlongs in 1:12. On the old Keeneland track, they would have been. But on Sunday the horses had two speeds: slow and slower.

A good field of high-priced claimers recorded fractions of 49.48 and 1:14.38 before accelerating at the finish. In the final race of the day, they were running in slow motion -- 52.18 and 1:17:46 -- before unleashing a late rush. Keeneland's president, Nick Nicholson, takes a positive view of this new style of racing: "The races are more tightly bunched. At the quarter pole, most of the horses are still in [contention]. More horses are running at the end of the race. I'd like to think that every horse has the chance to perform at his optimal level regardless of his style."

This is a new and unfamiliar game, and horseplayers must adjust to it. They should probably limit their bets to horses who have established form, or at least have shown a good workout, on the synthetic surface. Bettors will have to suppress any fondness for speed horses and look for the ones who can finish strongest. But handicappers should also be alert to differences in the synthetic surfaces at various tracks. The Polytrack at Turfway Park and Woodbine doesn't have the strong anti-speed bias seen at Keeneland.

While horseplayers are examining the effect of synthetic surfaces, leaders of the racing industry should do the same. Speed has always been the most prized quality in the sport. Racing fans love thoroughbreds who flaunt their speed. Breeders have invested billions of dollars in pedigrees designed to produce horses with speed. The people who have championed synthetic racing surfaces should take a careful look at Keeneland and decide if this bizarre, go-as-slow-as-you-can style of racing is what the sport really needs.

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