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Like It or Not, Polytrack is Here to Stay...By Hartley Henderson
In 2004, Keeneland Race Course installed the first synthetic surface in North America which is a mixture of rubber and silicon, and is covered with sand and a wax coating. The purpose for developing the track was twofold: 1) to reduce injury to horses and 2) to avoid card cancellations as a result of bad track conditions. Today there are 6 tracks in North America with the surface. They include Keeneland, Turfway Park, Hollywood Park, Del Mar, Arlington Park and Woodbine in Toronto. In the United Kingdom, Lingfield, Kempton and Wolverhampton have polytrack and just last month Geelong in Australia installed the synthetic surface. Japan has announced that its main track will also be using polytrack. Expect every track in the U.S. to have a polytrack surface by the end of the decade.
When the track surface was first used it received mixed reviews. Many people felt it slowed down the races, while others thought it made the races more competitive and exciting. One person who drastically opposes polytrack is Andrew Beyer, the famous handicapper, author and columnist for the Washington Post. In his view the surface has essentially killed speed and the races have turned into a cavalry charge to the finish. This may be true at some tracks such as Turfway, but at Woodbine and Hollywood speed often holds up. The difference could be the result of a slight change to the surface that the manufacturers of polytrack made at Turfway. Amid concerns that the track produced relatively no kickback which slowed times drastically, the track decided to add spandex to the surface to speed things up. The change has created a surface which now favours closers. Two things that can not be disputed, however, is that the new surface is reducing the number of serious injuries occurring to horses when compared to the old dirt surface, and it has eliminated the problem of the dead rail. Tracks which always had an outside bias due to drainage of water towards the rail no longer have that problem. Similarly, tracks which always favoured inside speed, such as Hollywood's old surface, no longer have that bias either. Indeed on every polytrack race track there seems to be no post position advantage. For all those reasons, plus the fact that the track never gets in such bad shape that races have to be cancelled, trainers, jockeys and racetrack owners love the surface. Consequently, it is time to just accept the fact that polytrack is the wave of the future and try to handicap races accordingly. With that in mind here are 7 tips to follow when handicapping a race over polytrack.
1- Look for past form over the synthetic surface. Some horses take immediately to polytrack while others take time to develop an affinity for it, if they ever do. It's astounding how many horses look phenomenal on a dirt track and then run badly when they switch to polytrack. I suppose this shouldn't be overly shocking. Many horses were superstars on the turf and terrible on the dirt, while others couldn't handle the turf at all. Indeed there were very few Secretariats that were superstars on both surfaces. Thus, a good first rule when handicapping is if there is choice a between 2 or 3 horses and one has shown a liking for polytrack in the past they are generally the better option.
2- Horses returning to action soon after their last races do much better if they are moving from polytrack to a regular dirt surface or staying on polytrack. Horses switching from dirt to polytrack with little layoff generally perform far more poorly. This is a trend that I've seen over and over while handicapping at Woodbine, Hollywood and Keeneland. The logical reason for this is that the dirt tracks are much harder on the horse's muscles so it takes them a while to recuperate from the last race. Polytrack on the other hand, because it isn't as exerting on the horses, allows them to regain form much quicker. One trainer likened the difference to a human being running a short marathon on a brick road vs. running the same marathon over soft asphalt. Clearly the human running on bricks would be hurting much more after his race.
3- Don't discount turf horses on polytrack. For whatever reason turf specialists that generally don't handle the dirt track often do very well on polytrack. As mentioned earlier, in England 3 tracks are currently using polytrack (which they call equitrack), and horses seem to show little, if any, difference in performance when running over the two surfaces. When one watches the races from Geelong in Australia or Kempton Park in Britain he can actually see the dirt kicking up on the track, similar to the way turf flies for a race on the lawn. The Brits have picked up on this immediately, but in North America, because we are conditioned to seeing a horse fall off badly when trying dirt for the first time, we tend to discount a turf specialist running over the surface for the first time. Consequently turf horses will often go off at badly inflated odds when trying polytrack for the first time.
4- Look for a speed bias. Polytrack is supposed to have no bias associated with it, and this is generally true with regards to post position. However, when it rains the track can become a bit softer, creating more kickback and allowing for more come from behind horses to win. When the track is bone dry after a long drought, speed tends to hold up better, particularly at Woodbine and Hollywood Park. By the second or third race of the day it will be fairly evident if there is a speed bias. I recall well on one day at Woodbine, the first 5 races were won by the horse that either led or was in 2nd. This bias became so obvious to all that by the later races jockeys were forced to try and gun it early with horses that usually like to trail and make a big charge, creating a totally different complexion to the races and resulting in very juicy odds for winners.
5- Most polytrack racecourses are different. Turfway and Keeneland have similar layouts and tend to favour horses that like to make a late run; Hollywood and Woodbine tend to favor the speed horses a bit more; Arlington and Del Mar seem to have little speed bias at all. The difference is likely attributable to the time the racecourses were built. Keeneland and Turfway were the first built, Woodbine and Hollywood opened polytracks in the last 2 years, while Del Mar and Arlington just opened polytracks. Likely the maker of polytrack made adjustments to even things out more with each track it installed. Also the climate of each track could be a factor.
6- Look for value - especially in low claiming races. Horses struggling over dirt tracks often wake up on polytrack. If a horse is hurting because the track is gentler on their bones, a horse will often come to life. I've made quite a bit of money betting on horses running on polytrack for the first time with great past form that have tailed off badly. I recall not that long ago a horse which was a stakes winner just a year prior was running in a $16,000 claimer after a series of lousy finishes. The horse switched to polytrack and won that race by almost 15 lengths in a time comparable to when he won his stakes race. The last time I checked, the horse was entered in a high class allowance race and was one of the early line favorites.
7- Finally, look at final fractions more so than overall time when handicapping over the surface. Polytrack races tend to start slowly and pick up speed. In a way the surface is almost like a 400 yard dash where a runner will start a bit slowly and be at full speed by the end. It is not uncommon to see a 6 furlong race over polytrack where the final time will be around 1:09, despite an opening 24 second quarter. Consequently a handicapper may throw out a horse moving from 7 furlongs to 6 furlongs if they see a 24 second opening quarter, thinking the horse has no speed so the move in makes no sense. In actuality that 24 second opening quarter may be identical to a 23 second opening quarter on a horse running on a fast dirt course.
Considering all these tips obviously won't guarantee that a person picks winners when betting at a course using polytrack, but it should help give an advantage to others who are unfamiliar with the surface and handicap polytrack and dirt track races the same way.
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