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Polytrack In The Bluegrass...By Nelson Lardner

America's premier day of thoroughbred racing, the Breeders' Cup, goes off in two weeks, at Louisville's Churchill Downs.

But for now, the most significant day-to-day story in racing is being played out just up I-64, an hour-and-a-quarter from Louisville, at Lexington's Keeneland.

Years of broad dissatisfaction with the severe, biased results yielded up by Keeneland's primary dirt oval drove the Keeneland Association to replace that surface with the synthetic Polytrack.

The recent beginnings of Keeneland's fall meet have brought on a pattern of results, the broad style of which few anticipated, even after the stuff was first pressed upon North American horsemen at Kentucky's Turfway Park, a little more than a year ago. Trainers raved about how horses trained and raced more soundly over the material. But a different tune regarding the manner in which current Keeneland races are being run is now being expressed.

With isolated exceptions, Old Keeneland was a speed-favoring oval. The horse with the most early speed in a race - a horse which also clearly belonged in said race, from a quality perspective -- prevailed at a better-than-expected rate, especially if our speed horse benefited from the firmer, springier footing which so often prevailed along Keeneland's inside rail.

This effect was exaggerated in distance races, no matter the class. No event was immune. Keeneland's premier spring presentation, the Blue Grass Stakes, has frequently been captured in recent years by otherwise-modest horses who relished the Keeneland strip, were capable of taking the track at the outset, and could not then be caught, due to the bias.

This year's Blue Grass was typical. The Bob Baffert-trained Sinister Minister sprinted off to a long lead, coasted home by nearly thirteen lengths, and paid a fat $19.40. In the Derby, he stopped to finish a sagging sixteenth, and hasn't been seen in any winners' circle, since.

This milk train doesn't stop here any more, Mama.

In a recycled Washington Post column, featured in today's editions of Daily Racing Form, veteran turf writer/ handicapper Andrew Beyer expressed distress about the current state of Keeneland race shapes, Polytrack-style. Quite accurately, Beyer points out that in the first four dozen Keeneland Polytrack races, only one winner led every step of the way. Lifelong Keeneland patrons no doubt felt they had purchased a one-way ticket to BizarroWorld.

What you're now seeing, relatively-speaking, is pack racing . . . grass-race style, on dirt. Most fields aren't strung out. Until most jockeys adjust and quit sending their horses overaggressively, early, speed will likely continue to come back to the pack, in most cases.

Not that it's drastically impacted the wisdom of the masses. Favorite were winning at the approximate ratio established over the years, with some one-third of the public's choices reporting promptly. But you have to insist on fair odds value when guessing your way through the Polytrack races on these cards, as the old speed-carrying paradigm has gone the way of the Dodo, and it's more difficult to project just which stalker or closer is going to wind up getting the money.

Horses aren't just winning in unusual style. Different types of horses are moving up on this surface. Horses whose strides are especially suited to produce at maximum efficiency over the stuff . . . and/or horses seemingly bred for grass success, are exceeding expectations.

All major California tracks are taking the plunge with Poly, with Hollywood Park being the next to go online with their "Cushion Track", for their fall meeting, which commences November 1. Trainers training over the stuff, already love it. It'll be interesting to see how much they still love it if their races change shape, as Keeneland's have. Most California trainers are used to playing Survivor for real, seeing their best charges go for each other's throats from the start.

There's much more to say about this subject, and will continue with observations regarding some expressed attitudes and platitudes, next week . . .

Nelson Lardner

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