Closers Are Finally Coming Into Their Own
by Greg Melikov - 11/27/2006
I remember when the most favorable racetrack for closers was Hialeah Race Course. Unfortunately, the historic South Florida track that opened in 1925 and I enjoyed for quite a few decades until the 21st Century is history.
Do you recall where you were on May 22, 2001? I do -- among 3,280 who attended the final day of racing that attracted the rich and famous.
One of my favorite sports trivia questions is, "Who won the last race?" You might make a buck or two if you know Cheeky Miss captured the 10th at Hialeah.
Now there's a new factor in racing that apparently favors horses coming off the pace: the synthetic surface.
Pay attention horseplayers because whether it's Polytrack, the Cushion Track or the Tapeta synthetic surface, the newest phenomenon will alter your handicapping methods.
Polytrack surfaced this year at several facilities: Turfway Park, Keeneland and Woodbine. Keeneland bettors expecting the usual speed bias were unpleasantly surprised as horses on or near the pace at all routes were doomed as closers dominated.
At Hollywood Park, where the Cushion Track replaced dirt, closers are doing best. According to Brisnet.com, the winning running style is roaring from behind at seven furlongs and 1 1/16 miles.
Hialeah's stretch was 1,075 while Hollywood's is 991, considerably shorter than the 1,346 feet at Fair Grounds. Woodbine's is only 975 feet, five feet longer than Turfway Park.
So the length of the stretch isn't necessarily a factor in playing to closers, but the racing surface is.
Fast forward to 2007. The California Horse Racing Board last February ordered all thoroughbred tracks that operate meetings of at least four continuous weeks to install synthetic racing surfaces by the end of next year or lose dates.
The Tapeta synthetic surface, similar to Polytrack, will be installed at Golden Gate Fields. Del Mar is going for Polytrack.
The final verdict on the bias at individual tracks won't be in for several years so watch and act accordingly.
And don't forget the safety issue. Most of the thoroughbred industry has accepted the premise that artificial surfaces are safer for horses. So far, breakdowns have declined dramatically at tracks that installed synthetic surfaces.
Ah, but there are some handicappers who decry the threatened uniformity of such surfaces. For instance, racing guru Andy "Speed Figures" Beyer wrote in a recent column:
"This is a new and unfamiliar game, and horseplayers must adjust to it. They should probably limit their bets to horses that have established form, or at least have shown a good workout, on the synthetic surface.
"Bettors will have to suppress any fondness for speed horses and look for the ones who can finish strongest. But handicappers should also be alert to differences in the synthetic surfaces at various tracks.
"The Polytrack at Turfway Park and Woodbine doesn't have the strong anti-speed bias seen at Keeneland."
Beyer underscores a significant betting observation:
"If the Polytrack advocates prevail, and all racetracks are basically the same, the game will lose many of its subtleties. It might suffer the same fate as harness racing -- becoming too understandable and predictable, producing too many small payoffs, driving gamblers to other activities that offer more challenge and better opportunities for profit.
"Though the practicality and safety of synthetic surfaces may make them irresistible, a sport filled with Polytrack sounds boringly homogenized."
Racing fans ultimately will make the final decision at the wagering windows. If they become bored, the industry loses. If they go with the flow, racing will survive as it has in the past.