Saratoga Springs, NY--August 1, 2007

Dear Diary,

Theres trouble in paradise, the West Coast version, anyway. Or, you could look at it another way: Del Mars loss is Saratogas gain.

Two planes loaded with classy horses from the Ahmed Zayat stable are shipping from Del Mar to Saratoga because Zayat is displeased with the inconsistent nature of the newly installed Polytrack surface at Del Mar.

Zayat believes, as do many other horsemen, that theres a vast difference between how the surface plays in the mornings as compared to when the temperatures heat up in the afternoons.

No one is against safety, Zayat told Hank Wesch of the San Diego Union-Tribune. You need a surface that is both safe and maintains the integrity of racing. You cant take the speed out.

Battle lines are being drawn. Those who have no problem with the surface are saying its the speed-crazy trainer of Zayats horses, Bob Baffert, thats the problem.

He has to learn to train on it just like the rest of us, said rival trainer Mike Mitchell. And Im no genius about it I dont hear anyone other than Bob complaining.

Baffert has won seven training titles at the track where the rubber meets the surf.

But Bafferts not alone. Although he hasnt complained, trainer John Sherriffs entered his speedy A P Xcellent--second by a nose to Lava Man in the Hollywood Gold Cup on Cushion Track most recently--on the turf rather than on the Polytrack surface thats been cutting the legs out from under speed horses.

Richard Migliore, in town last weekend to ride Fairbanks for Todd Pletcher in the Whitney Handicap, loves Del Mar, but doesnt like the Polytrack surface either. He is, however, a fan of Hollywood Parks Cushion Track.

Polytracks record for safety at Del Mar has been impressive and that is the first order of business. There were 18 breakdowns at Del Mar last year, 10 during the running of races. There have been no significant injuries reported so far this year.

Zayat has shipped 25 horses out of the Del Mar barn area with most of them headed here. Consequently, Baffert will be a bi-coastal trainer for the next five weeks.

Truth is that no two Polytrack surfaces are created equal. Turfway Park and, to a certain extent, Woodbine, has played more honestly than the versions installed at Keeneland and now Del Mar.

While there were some issues with Cushion Track at the end of the recent Hollywood meet, that surface clearly has been the most fair in terms of running style, more closely resembling the American style or racing where speed is king.

Not an inveterate West Coast player myself, my personal handle at Hollywood last winter was much higher than it ever had been, such was the honest nature of Cushion Track racing. Santa Anita strongly considered converting to Polytrack but decided to install Cushion Track in time for its Oak Tree fall meet. Wise choice, especially since it brings continuity to the Southern California circuit in greater Los Angeles.

The difference between the Polytrack surface from morning to afternoon might as well be the difference between night and day. Its fine in the mornings until the Southern California sun turns Polytrack into a kind of rubber soup.

While artificial surfaces have virtually eliminated sloppy tracks, weather still can wreck havoc. Some trainers on occasion have resorted to applying cooking spray and other lubricants to a horses foot to help their runners gain traction.

Safety is a primary concern, of course. But as Zayat says, so is the integrity of racing. Natural elements are one thing. But surfaces themselves should not possess a natural bias that favors one running style over another.

Yes, its a learning process for everyone. Weve all heard the spin. But no trainer, no matter how gifted, can train a horse one way in the morning and expect similar results over virtually a different surface.

And we still have not learned anything about the extent of soft tissue injuries, reportedly more prevalent on artificial tracks than on conventional surfaces. Further, theres much empirical data suggesting that horseplayers have not found the means to make the proper adjustments.

And thats a group the industry might want to listen to. They vote with their dollars.


First Race: All wagers on even money favorite Rumspringa were refunded when it was discovered he was in the grasp of an assistant starter at the break. Jockey Ramon Dominguez was unseated but unhurt. Meanwhile, the loose horse impeded Sweet Grass Creek twice and forced Kent Desormeaux aboard Explosive Count to check approaching the quarter pole; follow both, Sweet Grass Creek in particular.

Second Race: Experience counted in baby race for maiden claimers, Double Or Nothing getting D. Wayne Lukas off the duck at the meet. Fuffy made strong late move down the center of the track beneath Jorge Chavez for Jamie Sanders, a good runnerup effort; note.

Third Race: Over-bet Trendy Lady was raced into defeat by Fast Deal, who placed gamely behind Cuaba, a strong late runner from down the center of the track; Bill Mott having a strong meet. Meanwhile, third finisher Veneti finished well too late and should benefit from the effort; bet back under similar conditions.

Fourth Race: Rasta Farian withstood interference and still out-gamed Sweet Ransom, who was subsequently, and justifiably, disqualified; second winner of the meet for Michael Matz, both on turf. No excuses for loose leader Beau Dare, who has shown little development since turning four; note

Fifth Race: Dallas Stewart improved on his good record with second-time starters as Georgetown justified his low odds in debut. Burgenland came from far back beneath Garrett Gomez for the place; two two-year-old starts for Sanders and two seconds. Well backed Elusive Schemes was rank in the post parade; note.

Sixth Race: Pegase Jim finished strongly to take short turf sprint, pacesetting Tourn Again holding gamely. Lemon Shore finished well too late, third; follow. Wild Quake chased the pace while racing wide throughout; note.

Seventh Race: The next time someone asks what was the last horse you saw break through the gate before the start and win, tell them it was Tight Grip on the grass at Saratoga. The fastest horse on performance figures finished smartly from off the pace to win his turf debut. Kaishu was used up alternating on the lead; note. Peace Mon finished very well too late, just missing; bet back vs. state-bred maidens.

The Fleet Indian: First of two overnight stakes and the smart money was, well, smart. Showing no aversion to a second turn, Laurens Tizzy stalked the leader, moved easily to the lead at headstretch and blew the race open, driving hard to the finish. Shady Lane finished strongly too late for the place; note.

The De La Rose: It was only an overnighter but know that Fantastic Shirls going to win something important this season. It could come here, a course she obviously loves, or at the mile distance which she loves more than this course. She absolutely flew home beneath Johnny V. who guided her brilliantly between horses to beat me, er, Amansara, in the final strides. Four-year-old Fantastic Light filly really coming into her own for McLaughlin; follow her progress. Meanwhile, the runnerup should benefit from her first start of the year for George Weaver; bet her back, too.

Tenth Race: Did we mention Mott was having a great meet? He had Ruban Bleu tight off the brief freshening and Desormeaux rated her brilliantly in front, giving him a riding triple. Tears I Cry raced well enough with the aluminum pad on. Prom Party lost ground on the backside but had no pop when the test came in a disappointing performance.

Bias Report: Track fast, no discernable bias. Turf (very) firm, played honestly.