Stamina pivotal in Polytrack races

Many of you have asked me how I’m handicapping Del Mar with its new Polytrack surface. First off, two tracks gave us clues, Keeneland and Arlington, which already have Polytrack.

Closers have done best at the two Midwest tracks, and that trend continues at Del Mar. I’ve found success handicapping Del Mar as if each race were a grass race, because grass racing lends itself to that style.

I emphasize the grass angle because I find myself looking at a horse’s pedigree much more than before. I like horses with a turf pedigree that typically boasts stamina and distance ability. Even in sprints.

This method is a complete reversal for most speed handicappers in Southern California who want to know only which horse would be in front after a quarter-mile. In the past, that would win you a lot of races.

Over Polytrack, high early speed can be a detriment, not an asset. This bias is so strong that noted speed trainers — Bob Baffert and Bruce Headley among them — have struggled to adapt. Also, their barns now might be full of the wrong style of horses to succeed on California’s synthetic surfaces.

Baffert became so frustrated with Polytrack that he took many of his best horses to Saratoga in New York, which still has a dirt surface, where he started winning again.

This new style of racing helps trainers such as Bobby Frankel and John Shirreffs. They train best for endurance and have animals bred toward that goal.

This new trend might soon affect the breeding industry. Bloodstock agents for California clients will start looking for horses with more stamina and late running ability versus precocious speed.

Commercial breeders then will have to respond to the market. That will force them to breed horses again for stamina and durability, like the old days, instead of blazing speed.

As for the jockeys, how can you not like the way two newcomers, Michael Baze and Joe Talamo, have taken to Polytrack? They ride smart and patient, and they really finish.

Turn back the clock and you can see traits of Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Delahoussaye in Baze and Talamo.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday. He can be reached at

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