On the Line by John Pricci

Saratoga Springs, NY, April 19, 2007--When turf writers for such national journals as the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today question the efficacy of last weekend’s Blue Grass Stakes results as a predictor of Kentucky Derby form, Polytrack advocates may have a problem.

Horsemen, handicappers and journalists everywhere have tried to get a handle on Dominican’s Blue Grass victory and what it will mean three weeks hence. And who could blame them? Does anyone know how to interpret splits of :26, :25 2/5, :25 1/5, :24 3/5, with a final furlong in :11 2/5?

The old inside-speed highway at Keeneland Race Course has produced 22 Derby winners from the storied Blue Grass. Based on those numbers, this nine-furlong fixture has been the best way to arrive in Louisville and depart with a few red roses from the winner’s blanket to be pressed forever between the pages of Derby history.

Like any worthwhile academic exercise, interpretation of Polytrack data compiled from results posted at the new Keeneland needs historical context. But know that the first meet on the new surface was last fall and frontrunners went 1-for-48. Or, as three-time defending Eclipse champion trainer Todd Pletcher noted: “It looks like they replaced one bias with another.”

Pletcher, of course, is correct. He believes that in a perfect world training is done or artificial surfaces and racing on conventional dirt. In Great Britain, where artificial surfaces have been in vogue much longer, noted European author and professional horseplayer Nick Mordin shared this opinion:

“[Artificial surfaces] erode the difference between horse race betting and other forms of gambling. Races are harder to predict and are unquestionably more competitive. When you’re betting on a horse you hope that it has a significant edge. Polytrack denies you that. The surface has reduced betting almost to the level of a lottery.”

Last weekend bettors believed they had a significant edge backing Breeders’ Futurity winner Great Hunter over favorite Blue Grass favorite Street Sense. Great Hunter beat Street Sense last fall, so why not again? Instead, it was Dominican that would remain undefeated in three career Polytrack starts.

Of course, the Kentucky Derby will be run on a conventional dirt track, one that gets faster as Derby Week progresses and is close to superhighway-fast by May’s first Saturday. What to do?

The benefits of artificial dirt surfaces such as Polytrack should be noted. It’s vertical drainage system virtually eliminates treacherous sloppy or muddy track conditions, carrying water down and away from the surface. Although Polytrack has been adversely effected by extreme cold and breakdowns over Turfway Park’s Polytrack increased at the winter/spring meet, Polytrack has proven to be a safer surface.

There are other benefits, too. Faster recovery time between starts, fewer scratches that help maintain field size and thereby the bottom line, and a greater incentive for turf horses to remain in rescheduled grass races is not inconsequential. All this and the unqualified success of turf-bred specialists racing on the new artificial surfaces.

The Derby question is how do handicappers reconcile the Blue Grass fractions and race shape on a surface fast enough to produce a world record clocking for juveniles at four and a half furlongs 48 hours earlier and times recorded by juvenile under-tack sales horses in :20 1/5 for a quarter mile and a furlong in :09 3/5 earlier that week? The answer is you can’t, so you don’t try.

There is sufficient empirical evidence to suggest that having a morbidly slow Polytrack run does not adversely effect horses moving back to conventional dirt, no matter how fast that playing field. One only needs consider how well Cushion Track-trained horses performed at Santa Anita and elsewhere, or the success enjoyed by Woodbine invaders this winter at Gulfstream Park. Anecdotally, many won at first asking instead of needing the usual race over the track.

Specifically, the colts that ran 1-3 in last year’s Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland finished 1-3 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, albeit in reverse order. Interesting to note, too, that Circular Quay split Great Hunter and Street on both occasions. Apparently, Keeneland goes into Churchill very nicely, indeed.

This is the only instance when the racetrack adage of time only counting when in jail may be accurate. Revisiting the Breeders’ Futurity, Great Hunter’s mile and a sixteenth was clocked in 1:44. Street Sense needed only 1:42 2/5 to win the Juvenile. According to Equiform’s data base, Street Sense earned the best performance figure by a juvenile since Easy Goer dominated the 1988 Champagne Stakes. Parenthetically, performance figures quantify and qualify running time measured against the speed of a track’s surface.

In a circuitous fashion, this brings us to Curlin. Over an Oaklawn Park surface slower than par, Curlin’s 10-˝ length Arkansas Derby romp was the fastest figure earned by a three-year-old this year in a two-turn distance by a significant margin. His nine-furlong figure was one point faster than Circular Quay’s mile and a sixteenth Louisiana Derby victory, or roughly less than 2-Ľ lengths. Those were the best figures earned over a distance of ground by a three-year-old this year.

Running times are the game’s only absolute truth. Speed figures are an effective measure of those times, even if many believe their certitude exists only in the eyes of their creators. Rather, it is assessing thoroughbred performance through a visual prism that truly is the subjective exercise.

But what we have seen from Curlin has been extraordinary: Athletically he is nearly perfect. He carries his head low, seemingly in perfect relation to his running action. He is so economical and push-button paced that he appears to glide over the ground. In his last race he showed none of the drifting-out greenness demonstrated in his previous two starts. Could he be learning this quickly, be this good?

Historical context is a subject for another day. Meanwhile, Curlin’s Arkansas Derby figure was a point lower than Street Sense’s Juvenile. Curlin is lightly raced and celebrates his true birthday 30 days later than Street Sense. But the Street Sense figure was earned as a late-season two-year-old, thus he has a higher figure to return to on his best effort. The only question now is whether his Polytrack prep helps get him back there.