by Rich Nilsen
(reprinted with permission of AMERICAN TURF MONTHLY)
On September 7 of last year, I waited patiently for the first race at Turfway Park. Like many experienced handicappers, I had a gut feeling that this was the beginning of something that could change the future of the game. It was the U.S. debut of Polytrack, one of several types of all-weather surfaces which had been in existence for many years over in Europe.
A Mountaineer shipper and six year old gelding by the name of Regal Reproach scored from off the pace that day to the tune of $28.20. The first thing that jumped out was, despite a slow pace of 1:14 flat for six furlongs, closers took down the top three spots. The final time of 1.40.3 for one mile was very slow for a strong field of starter allowance types.
With only one six furlong call in sub 1.13 for the entire card, it was quickly obvious that Polytrack was a very slow surface. Nothing occurred over the remainder of the 22-day Turfway meet to diffuse that notion, as times were consistently over two full seconds slower than normal.
Many questions would arise. Is Polytrack really a safer surface? Would turf runners handle the poly better than dirt horses? Is kickback an issue? What other tracks would plan to make this drastic change? Some of these questions, and more, are beginning to get answered. However one thing was for sure. The landscape of racing did in fact change on this Wednesday evening in Florence, Kentucky.ABOUT POLYTRACK
Comprised of silica sand, fibers and recycled materials, Polytrack is covered with a wax coating that allows waters to drain down vertically to the sub layers below. These sub layers consist of compacted broken stone and rock that house vertical drainage pipes.
The benefit of the vertical drainage design is that it allows the track to maintain a consistent depth throughout, minimizing shallow or hard spots on the track. The result of the design along with the composition is a much softer and even racing surface.THE WINTER TEST
Polytrack passed the initial test during the fine fall weather in Kentucky, but the real test would come with the meet that prompted this change in the first place. The Turfway Park Winter season had long been a problem for Kentucky track management and the horsemen trying to race there.
Many years ago I worked this brutally tough meet on the backside. There were many occasions where the maintenance crew "worked" the track day and night, only to cancel the entire card hours or literally minutes before first race post time. It was a frustrating situation that occurred year-in and year-out. So, it was very logical that Turfway would be the first track to take the chance and overhaul their oval.
In a recap of the Winter/Spring meet as reported in the Bloodstock Journal (April 7, 2006), Turfway had one of their best meets ever. All-sources handle rose 61.8 percent, fueled by a 69.4 percent jump in out-of-state handle and a 15 percent jump in in-state wagering.
Aside from early in the meet when the track canceled due to dangerous road conditions coming into Florence, no races at Turfway were canceled due to unsafe track conditions. Every race every day was rated "fast" for the entire 14-week meet. The result was 97 more races run than the prior year and a higher average number of starters (8.3) per race. Handicappers nationwide supported the new, improved racetrack and the result was a huge increase in wagering dollars.SAFETY ISSUE
During the prior year's meet there were 28 serious injuries reported with 14 of those catastrophic breakdowns. Under Polytrack those numbers in January-April, 2006 were significantly reduced to only 10 reported cases of lameness and zero breakdowns.
Since the surface was placed in service last September, three runners have broken down over the poly versus 24 horses over the same period of time in 2004-2005. This despite 1,283 more starters.
"We had three main goals for our Polytrack installation," explained Track President Robert Elliston. "Improve safety for the horse and riders; reduce the number of canceled days while providing a consistent racing surface; and produce a competitive, appealing wagering product for our patrons. These numbers demonstrate that we met or exceeded all of those goals."
Anyone who closely followed the opening week at Del Mar this year, should understand why synthetic surfaces are so important for the racing industry. Only a couple months after Barbaro’s hearting-breaking injury in the Preakness, Del Mar opened their 67th annual meet with a record crowd in attendance. On opening day a horse broke down in the feature and after the first 7 days of the meet had concluded, a total of 7 horses had been euthanized – a sickening average of one per day.
One horse that was pulled up injured and actually claimed out of the $32,000 race was the popular runner Bonus Pack. “I ran a sound horse and he got hurt,” explained trainer Bill Spawr. “I’m very concerned” about the safety of the racetrack.
As a racing fan who attended the 1990 Breeders’ Cup at Belmont Park, I am willing to adjust to the changes that come with synthetic surfaces because the need for it outweighs everything else. The breakdown of superstar Go For Wand that day was one of the worst incidents in the history of the sport and one that will never be forgotten, especially for the fans in attendance that fateful afternoon.
Will synthetic surfaces ensure that we never witness another nationally televised tragedy such as Barbaro or Go For Wand? Certainly not, but the odds are drastically reduced.PEDIGREE PLAYS & THE TURF MYTH
Thanks to many TV personalities and handicappers jumping to conclusions, the most widely publicized angle regarding poly has been that turf horses are the bets of choice. If you're wagering on one-dimensional turf runners making the move to the poly, you'll lose your shirt. Although there is some truth that some grass specialists handle the poly well, the entire angle has been blown out of proportion.
A leading Thoroughbred publication did an in-depth analysis of the sires of Polytrack winners from the concluded Turfway season. One thing from this study that jumped out at me was that there was quite a mix of turf and dirt stallions that had successfully sired poly winners.
Consider that some of the most successful stallions included Crafty Prospector, Fit To Fight, Louis Quartorze, Presidential Order, Sefapiano, Storm Boot, and Souvenir Copy. Few handicappers would mistake these stallions as turf influences. In fact, the overwhelming majority of their progeny's earnings to date have come on the dirt.
Table 1 shows the stallions that had 10 or winners since the debut of Polytrack. How many good turf runners by Real Quiet can you name? Zero; because there really haven't been any. Real Quiet has had just one minor stakes winner on the lawn and just a handful of bottom allowance winners despite numerous grass attempts by his progeny. It's not to say that one of his many top class runners, such as Wonder Lady Anne L, would not handle the switch to the grass if given the opportunity, but the bottom line is that Real Quiet (like Fit To Fight mentioned previously) is as confirmed a dirt sire as it comes.Table 1
Turfway Park sires with
10 or more wins, 2005-'06
Close observation tells this handicapper that the ideal poly play is not a turf horse but rather a runner with a proven tendency to handle multiple surfaces. Many horses do not fall into that classification. Most racehorses, of course, have a preferred surface on which they do their best running.
We're looking for a versatile horse, and there's no better example than the most successful horse during the Polytrack season. A son of Presidential Order named Indy Energy won six of seven starts. Prior to his introduction to Polytrack, the veteran runner had won on four different track conditions (ft, fm, sy, my) and placed on two others (wf, gd), not to mention a close fourth place effort on a yielding turf course. That's versatility in a nutshell.
Closely examine his past performances as the type of horse than can move forward when placed on an all-weather surface.SHIPPER STATS
Knowing which circuits are producing winners at a particular track carries some appeal to a handicapper seeking an edge. Many factors can affect the stats presented in Table 2, such as which trainers are making the trip; the class level of the runners involved; etc.
Runners who last raced at Arlington Park were the most dangerous shippers since the debut of Polytrack, winning at an impressive 23-percent clip and producing a flat bet profit of $.09 for every $2 wagered. From a smaller sample size, Thistledown shippers also fared well and when they did, they tended to score at big odds (2.77 ROI).
Still stuck on the turf horse angle? If you were, and you were wagering on runners who last raced on the all-turf course at Kentucky Downs, you would have taken a beating...Soprano style! Only two runners from the 60 who last raced on the grass at Kentucky Downs were able to find the winner's circle, resulting in a paltry 3-percent success rate.Table 2 Track of Last Race courtesy of Brisnet.com Database
BIAS OR NO BIAS?
That is the question. Turfway Park runs the majority of their races at basically five distances - three sprints and two routes. Let's take a look at each, with assistance from the Brisnet.com database, and compare how the track has changed from the pre-poly era.
5 1/2 FURLONGS
A total of 120 races were contested at this sprint distance, and 30.8-percent were won gate to wire. E types (frontrunners) had a positive impact value of 1.41, indicating they won 41-percent more often than their fair share of races. [An impact value below 1.00 would indicate a negative statistic].
In the past over 40 percent of the 5 1/2 furlong affairs were won by frontrunners, so the poly has leveled the playing field...but not enough. Speed is still preferred.
The best post positions have been outside draws of eight and beyond, or interestingly, the rail post (13.3% winners).6 FURLONGS
Just under 300 races were run at 6 furlongs. Whereas 38-percent of the pre-poly races in 2004-'05 were won wire to wire, 28-percent of the poly events were scored on the front end. Early speed and tactical speed is preferred going six furlongs at Turfway Park. 58-percent of the winners were within two lengths of the lead at the first call.
Deep, one-run closers fared much better than at 5 1/2 furlongs but still had a low impact value of 0.73. Pressers, or mid-pack closers, won almost their fair share of races.
Six furlongs did have an anti-inside post bias, as runners breaking from post four and beyond fared best. Runners breaking from the rail won only 7.7 percent of the time.6 ˝ FURLONGS
Prior to Polytrack, 6 ˝ furlongs at Turfway played nearly identical to races at the 6 furlong distance. Interestingly, the poly races at this distance also played similar to the poly races at the slightly short sprint distance. Just under 30-percent of the races, 222 in total, were won on the front end. All runstyles had a positive impact value with the exception of one run closers, who only won 19-percent of the races for a low 0.78 impact value. Pressers, or mid-pack closers, appreciated the extra half furlong and performed slightly better at this distance.
This distance played extremely fair for all post positions with no particular draw holding any significant edge.ONE MILE
For years this two-turn distance with a short run into the first turn produced a plethora of frontrunning winners, many at huge prices. Those days are ancient history.
Concerning the runstyles and post positions of the winners, no distance played fairer than 8 furlongs. Less than 20 percent of the 385 races were won gate to wire. The average beaten lengths of the eventual winner at the first and second calls was 3.27 lengths and 1.37 lengths, respectively.
No post position held any advantage as plenty of winners were seen breaking from the outside posts.1 1/16 MILES
Pressers, or mid-pack closers, dominated in this two-turn route of ground, winning 35.3 percent of the 116 races contested. Overall, closers held the upper hand. Only 15 percent of the races were won of the front end, only slightly less than the 18 percent wire-to-wire winners on the last dirt meet. The difference between the two years was many less stalkers won over the new poly surface.
Again, post positions seemed to play very fair. Only middle posts (4-7) suffered a slightly low 0.91 impact value.UPCOMING TRACKS
Now will any of this track bias information correlate to Keeneland which debuts Polytrack at their fall meeting? Possibly, since it is a co-owner of Turfway and is installing the same all-weather surface. I would expect comparable results between Keeneland and Turfway's main tracks.
Will we ever see the golden rail speed bias at Keeneland again? It’s highly doubtful but certainly not impossible on a given day.
One other significant change that will occur with the change-over to Polytrack at Keeneland this October is a re-configuration of the oval. With the homestretch 1,235 feet to the finish line, Keeneland’s stretch will now by one foot longer than the stretch at Churchill Downs. Hard to believe but true.
But before we see the debut of poly at the prestigious Keeneland meet, Woodbine will have already completed their installation of the new main track.
David Wilmot, president of Woodbine Entertainment Group, traveled to numerous tracks in England last winter before making the decision. “At Newmarket, they probably had 12 different all-weather tracks, and six of them would be different types of Polytrack. One comment was that the only complaints heard were from the vets because they were losing business.”
Another comment that convinced Wilmot to switch over at a cost of roughly $10 million, was that at Newmarket about 80 percent of the trainers were choosing to train over the all-weather surface instead of the turf gallops. “That blew my mind,” explained Wilmot.
“The whole notion of dirt tracks with crowns,” explained Wilmot, “so you get horizontal run-off of water is gone. Polytrack is vertical drainage – the water hits it and goes straight down.”
Wilmot has estimated that the track will save $750,000 per year in track maintenance expenses. Also, races coming off the turf are much less likely to have as many scratches.
“For me, this is the most compelling thing we’ve done since putting in slot machines.”
Another high profile track that is installing a synthetic racing surface is Hollywood Park, which will be the first of the Southern California tracks mandated to make the change. The Inglewood track is installing a less expensive surface known as Cushion Track. This is a product of U.K.-based Equestrian Surfaces which has been manufacturing these surfaces for more than 20 years.
Cushion Track is manufactured with a combination of synthetic fibers, elastic fiber and granulated rubber, all coated with a specifically formulated blend of wax.
Also this fall is another synthetic surface being installed, this time at the well known Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland, where approximately 460 horses are stabled. Ironically, this is where Barbaro trained prior to the Preakness Stakes.
Fair Hill is in the process of installing Tapeta Footings, which is the all-weather surface manufactured and designed over 12 years ago by trainer Michael Dickinson, who has the material on his own training facility, Tapeta Farms in east Maryland.SUMMARY
The more things change, the more things stay the same. Just because the surface is somewhat different doesn't mean fundamental handicapping angles are thrown out the window.
Follow your track like you did before. Know the local trainers and their tendencies. Follow trips and note horses that weren't given the chance to perform up to their best potential. Know the jockey colony and which riders are best adapting to the track change. Understand the pedigrees and the bloodlines that are winning more often than not.
Keep in mind that the horses for courses angle may be important than ever before, as certain runners show a strong fondness for a particular synthetic surface.
Handicapping hasn't changed. Thoroughbred racing is not going the way of harness racing, as one famous handicapping author recently penned. Racing continues to evolve and all-weather surfaces are a major component in that change.
We will continue to discover more answers to the many questions these new surfaces propose, as more and more races are contested on different types of synthetic courses. Just as before, handicapping the races and finding an edge will be a challenge worth undertaking. Good luck!-- Rich Nilsen is a four-time qualifier to Las Vegas and is the only player to have won three different major tournaments in Kentucky (Ellis Park, Keeneland, and Turfway). Rich has also captained the TwinSpires Pick-6 Players' Pool which has gross winnings of over $680,000 since Breeders' Cup 2004. The Player's Pool will return for this year's Breeders' Cup, held Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs. Contributions can be made online at TwinSpires.com beginning mid-October.
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