Polytrack:
Panacea or pariah,
it’s coming to Cal

Apr 11, 2006 4:22 AM

Polytrack is coming, like it or not.

The California Horse Racing Board recently mandated that unless Del Mar, Hollywood, Santa Anita, Golden Gate and Bay Meadows install the synthetic surface on their main tracks by the end of next year, the CHRB will not issue those tracks a license to race, according to a rule proposed by CHRB Chairman Richard Shapiro.

Horsemen, the vast majority of them, anyway, can’t wait. Trainers maintain that the inconsistency in track surfaces subjects horses to injuries, which have a negative trickle-down effect encompassing virtually all aspects of the game.

"Polytack will cut down on horse injuries, it will cut down on jockey injuries and if you cut down on jockey injuries, then the cost of workers’ comp insurance is going to go down," said Jeff Mullins, one of Southern California’s leading trainers, who blames the dirt for the debilitation of some of his horses. "Not only that, we’ll get horses from the East Coast and that might increase our field size.

"Right now, those horsemen don’t want to come here because they’re afraid of injuring their horses. Because of that I think Polytrack is the greatest thing that could happen to us. It’s pretty hard to find any negative feedback. I trained on it for two weeks at Keeneland and our horses loved it. Everybody you asked about it loved it.

"Not only that, if all tracks put it in, you can train wherever you want and have an equal opportunity wherever you run. Right now, the main track at Hollywood is different from Santa Anita; Santa Anita is different from Hollywood, and Del Mar is different from both of them.

"I think Polytrack is a win/win situation. When it rains heavily, we’re not going to have to close the track. When rain cancels turf racing, there won’t be as many scratches because turf horses run on Polyrack just as well as they do the turf, and sometimes a turf horse will outrun a dirt horse on it. I don’t see any downside to it. Big trainers like (Todd) Pletcher, (Richard) Dutrow and those guys will come from the east."

Bill Spawr, who has been winning races with regularity in Southern California for nearly 30 years, is another trainer in support of Polytrack.

"I want it so the surfaces are consistent," Spawr said. "If one track gets it, they all have to get it, so the horses would be on a safe surface wherever they go. That will help curtail injuries, because we won’t have to worry about running on changing surfaces that horses aren’t used to."

Jim Equils, who along with his wife, Marcia, has been one of the circuit’s leading owners since he came into the business just over six years ago, also sees Polytrack as beneficial.

"From everything I’ve read, it cuts down on injuries," Equils said. "I read that in Europe injuries are down 50 percent to horses running on Polytrack. As an owner, everything has to go your way to show a profit, because each horse costs between $3,000 and $3,500 a month on average to maintain. Last month I made about $17,000, but the two previous months were disastrous. If you’re not running in big races, it’s hard to make money. When you’re running in $10,000 claiming races, you have to win consistently just to break even."

At least one jockey who has ridden over Polytrack says the jury is still out.

"The surface has a good kickback," said 38-year-old David Flores, who has ridden on Polyrack in Kentucky. "Normally, on dirt, some horses climb and get unsettled. But every horse that gets behind climbs for a little while because something hits their eyes.

"There’s a lot of rain and sometimes snow in the east so Polytrack helps make the surface consistent. But in Southern California, they would have to find the right synthetic surface for the climate. It would need to be properly watered, because when it gets dry, pieces of the material fly up in the air when horses run over it. But it should keep them sound in the long run."

Some maintain that Polytrack would produce slower running times and eliminate nuances of handicapping involving off tracks and so-called biases.

"It does that," said professional clocker and gambler Gary Young, "but I don’t think it will affect it that much. Let’s put it this way: if we go to Polytrack, I don’t think any track records will be in jeopardy. But if the horses come back better, that’s all that really matters."

THE HOMESTRETCH:

”¡ Kentucky Derby oddsmaker Mike Battaglia said Brother Derek would be the morning line favorite in the 132nd Run for the Roses on May 6 after his expected victory in the Santa Anita Derby. No Santa Anita Derby winner has won the run for the Kentucky Derby since Sunday Silence in 1989.

”¡ Californians dominated from coast to coast last Saturday. Bob and John won the Wood Memorial and Too Much Bling won the Bay Shore at Aqueduct; Buzzards Bay romped in the Oaklawn Handicap; and California resident Kent Desormeaux rolled to his second straight win in the Illinois Derby, this time aboard Sweetnorthernsaint. But the day’s riding star was 22-year-old Peruvian Rafael Bejarano, who invaded Santa Anita for the day and won six of the 11 races.

”¡ If a prop bet is offered on which team will lead the Major Leagues in men left on base, take the Phillies.