The Great Race Place became the third and final major track on the Southern California circuit to switch to a synthetic surface when Oak Tree opened its fall meet on Wednesday. After three days, here are my early impressions: the strip obviously plays much faster than Del Mar’s Polytrack (what track doesn’t?); the track has played very fair, with the winners coming from everywhere; and, in appearance and profile, Santa Anita’s Cushion seems to be almost identical to its counterpart at Hollywood Park. Perhaps a bit quicker, but similarly fair to all types of runners.

Regarding fast times: Santa Anita has always been the fastest of the three SoCal tracks, so I have no problem with a quick main track, as long as it is safe for the horses. The trainers and jockeys have been almost unanimously positive in their comments about the surface, and large field sizes are testament that horses have stayed sounder throughout the year while able to recover quicker and run back more often. Sorry, but I just haven’t found any downside to the new synethic era.

NOTES: On Wednesday, Corey Nakatani again showed why he’s the best turf rider in the room with his rail-skimming victory aboard DANCING EDIE, while CLINET steadied repeatedly behind horses down the lane…JOHNNY EVES sizzled in 1:08.05 when chased home by talented runner-up STREET BOSS. On Thursday, MODEL split horses to gamely win her second straight while acting like a filly that is going to keep improving with experience and distance. On Friday, COCO BELLE got back on the winning track with a fast win going 6 1/2 furlongs…another good effort by runner-up GOTHIC BEAUTY, who chased the top one all the way home.

Get ready for a Sensory Overload Saturday, with excellent races from all over the country.

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Closing day at Del Mar is always a bittersweet experience. Sweet because it’s the end of long, 11 1/4-month grind, culminated by seven weeks of six-day racing. Vacation is on the horizon, with a chance to recharge the battery and freshen up for the Oak Tree season. Bitter because, let’s face it, it’s awfully nice living and working within a stone’s throw of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a nice respite from the “real world” and a chance to be totally immersed in horse racing and its denizens for a couple of months. The work load is heavy (evidenced by the fact that I have not made a blog posting since Aug. 22–which I’ve been reminded of by a number of friends and readers) but we all know that when we ship down here for the season. Plus, Del Mar is my home track, having grown up 20 miles away in nearby Vista. As the meet winds down I often times get pangs of nostalgia, thinking about how fast another year has gone by. I flash back to memories of being a kid, coming to Del Mar with my Dad and late grandmother, rarely missing a day. I knew every nook and cranny of that old facility, with its open-air grandstand and ivy-covered paddock.

The first year of the Polytrack era is over and I think the results were very positive. Fewer runners broke down, horses were able to bounce back from races more quickly and ran more often. Field sizes were up slightly (thanks to a very strong closing week at the entry box), as were attendance and handle. Those, like myself, who felt serious gamblers would take a wait-and-see approach for the first couple of weeks were wrong. Nearly $14 million a day was handled (bolstered by over $24 million on Pacific Classic Day and over $22 million on closing day, fueled by that huge Pick Six double carryover), while on-track attendance was 16,719. Del Mar truly has become a destination place to visit, and gamble on, during the summer.

The racing was good, although not particularly spectacular. Maybe the slow nature of Polytrack had something to do with that. In fact, for me the most noteworthy performances came on grass, with RUTHERIENNE winning the Del Mar Oaks and CROSSING THE LINE taking the Del Mar Mile. AFTER MARKET was named Horse of the Meet after taking the Eddie Read and Del Mar handicaps. Michael Baze followed up his Hollywood Park riding title with another here at the seaside. After an early battle with Joe Talamo, Baze came away through the last two weeks to end up winning 50-37. Doug O’Neill and Jeff Mullins continued their string of one-two finishes, with O’Neill prevailing 23-19 while saddling over twice as many starters. Honorable mention to trainers John Sadler and Mike Mitchell, who tied for third; Craig Dollase, who was the highest-percentage trainer in the top 10 while taking down nearly a million dollars in purses; and Peter Miller, who got off to a torrid start to lead the early standings and then knocked down his first Grade I with SET PLAY in the Debutante.

Speaking of trainers, here are a couple of interesting tidbits. The top 20 trainers won 197 of the 371 (53%) races carded this summer. On the other end of the scale, of the 232 trainers who started horses at the meet, 165 of them won one race or less. Think about that for a minute. Seventy one percent of licensed trainers were not able to win more than one race. Ron McAnally (two-for-52), Nick Hines (one-for-29), Ted West (one-for-21), Mike Puype (one-for-26), Gary Stute (one-for-22), Mel Stute (zero-for-26), Mike Marlow (zero-for-21) and Eoin Harty (zero-for-15) had particularly forgettable meets. Although Steve Knapp managed to win three races, he saddled 51 horses, staying true to his average of about 6% for the year. And newcomers Cody Autrey (two-for-26) and Dale Romans (zero-for-11) found the water a little deeper out West.

NOTES: Patrick Biancone has enjoyed much success in the training profession but his reputation is more than a bit clouded. Along with the current cobra venom allegation, Biancone is serving a 15-day suspension in Kentucky after one of his horses tested positive for caffeine, and has been fined $10,000 in California after one of runners tested positive for Salmeterol (a Class 3 substance) back in January at Santa Anita. This is the same guy who was banned from racing in Hong Kong after a couple of violations there in the late 90’s. Innocent until proven guilty but, often times, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

After a good battle with Jeff Siegel that came down to the final day, I again led all public handicappers with 120 winners (32%). Although I finished second to Siegel in the mutuel category, I was able to eek out a miniscule flat-bet profit $742.80 (based on 371 races). It isn’t much but it’s still a good accomplishment when picking every race over a seven-week period. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but I’ve been the leading handicapper at all three meetings (Hollywood Park Fall, HP Spring/Summer and Del Mar) run over synthetic surfaces. We’ll see if that streak can continue at Oak Tree, where Cushion Track will debut over the Santa Anita track.

On vacation until opening day at Oak Tree (Sept.26), where the blog postings will get back on a more regular schedule.

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