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Polytrack - Whys and Wherefores...By Nelson Lardner

Today, Keeneland runs off the final exam on its first full meeting employing its new main-track surface of choice - the artificial Polytrack.

Fans of the hallowed 70-year-old race place have endured a lengthy mental re-evaluation of how best to handicap non-grass races. Some adjustments are subtle. To some people, the means to the preferred end are balefully obvious. "You can't take anything less than 10-1 on any race run over this stuff," I overheard one wizened veteran observe at Bradley Teletheater in Connecticut, Friday afternoon. Since it's difficult to embrace speed horses over a surface that eats them for lunch, players are left to uncover the most-likely stalker-closer . . . which means you need your horse to enjoy a good trip, which logically elevates minimum-odds requirements.

The longtime Washington Post racing reporter/columnist, Andrew Beyer, has largely decried the advent of the artificial surfaces. Winding up his first extensive critical read on Keeneland's experiment in his October 19 piece, Beyer wrote: "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 this sport really needs."

Yet, in the paragraph prior, Beyer notes: "The Polytrack at Turfway Park and Woodbine doesn't have the strong anti-speed bias seen at Keeneland."

Keeneland's new bias may be an isolated case, and could well be curable, with tweaking. The implementation of Polytrack at certain North American tracks is a work in progress. Motivations included "weatherproofing" (Keeneland/Turfway/Woodbine), elimination of prevailing, patently-unfair track biases (Keeneland), and/or significant safety considerations (the major Southern California tracks, primarily Del Mar). One noted fear, the use of artificial surfaces at tracks hosting major races of greatest public interest (the Triple Crown, and next Saturday's Breeders' Cup) seems a paper tiger. . .hardly a serious near-term concern.

What was most disturbing in early media response to this issue was some scribes' preliminary stand that the intrigue/potential gambling advantages potentially derived by both prevailing and shifting main-track biases were of greater value than was equine safety. This kind of posturing is regrettable, but especially so, regarding the SoCal scene. I take no back seat to any human in my affection for Del Mar in all its August glory, but its main track has largely been hard/jarring on most horses for many years, and Polytrack figures to provide welcome relief. Field sizes have shrunk in California for years, and it's only good economics - not to mention humane - to preserve the stars of your show to race more effectively, and more often.

On balance, Polytrack is clearly good wherever it's a superior alternative to the status quo at specific outposts. For the two most significant segments of the thoroughbred support system - the bettors, and horse owners - it's win-win. The players will learn ways to best cope with its challenges, and owners who prefer to campaign at tracks that do/will feature it will relish the sight of their heroes earning more and lasting longer.

It's all about the horse. The greatness of some, the competitiveness of most, the sheer physical beauty of the most eye-pleasing of all gambling games . . . the horse comes first. The horse MUST come first. And Polytrack, selectively deployed, serves that requirement.

Nelson Lardner

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