Speed is king again so far at Del Mar

No, it has not been a good first week for Del Mar’s synthetic Polytrack surface, seeing as though there have been four fatalities — two during live racing and two during morning workouts — dating back to Sunday, July 19. An additional breakdown on the turf during afternoon racing makes it five horses total that have had to be euthanized so far this summer.

Those are the type of numbers that led to these mandated artificial tracks in the first place. Del Mar’s stats in 2006 concerning breakdowns were dreadful, setting into motion the move by the California Horse Racing Board — led by then chairman Richard Shapiro — to force all major California race tracks to install synthetic surfaces by the start of the 2008 racing calendar.

While the number of catastrophic injuries is up, so too are the number of gate-to-wire winners at the seaside oval. Here are some surprising numbers through the first five days of Del Mar racing, especially when you consider that speed horses were up against a severe bias in 2007 and ’08:

* There have been 25 sprint races, ranging from 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 furlongs, over Polytrack and eight horses, or 32 percent, have gone virtually gate to wire.
* Four of the sprint winners (16 percent) were second after the opening quarter mile, meaning almost half (48 percent) of the sprint winners so far this meet have been no worse than second early on.
* Seven sprint winners, or 28 percent, have been sixth or worse after the opening quarter, meaning that as well as speed has fared so far, come-from-behinders are not at a distinct disadvantage like speed horses were the past two summers.
* Of the six races on the main track at one mile or more, there has been one gate-to-wire winner and the other five have all come from fourth or farther back after the opening half-mile.

So far, it’s been a very fair track for bettors. Now whether it stays that way, depending on if management tinkers with it because of the early fatalities, is open to debate. But it’s nice to be able to bet speed on this track and know your horse isn’t going to need an oxygen tank at the eighth pole.

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