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cover Betting Synthetic Surfaces: Conquering Racing's Newest Frontier
By Bill Finley
DRF Press, September 2008, 224 pages hardcover

Although racing has had a reputation for being an old timer's game, stuck in the past and resistant to change, this reputation is not completely correct. Performance-enhancing drugs both legal and illegal, modern handicapping innovations such as speed figures, safety innovations such as flak jackets and safety rails, exotic pools and expanded simulcasting, Trakus electronic chart calling, and the Breeders' Cup program are but a few changes contemporary racing fans have seen introduced over the last few decades. However, none of these listed have generated as much press, as much discussion, or polarized racing fans as much as the introduction of synthetic surfaces to North American major league racing. Arlington, Del Mar, Hollywood, Keeneland, Presque Isle, Santa Anita, Turfway, and Woodbine have made the switch, and the list is growing.

The debates for and against synthetic has gone on in the media ever since it replaced the conventional dirt surfaces at Keeneland's training track and at Turfway Park. However, one thing is for certain given statistically significant reductions in horse injuries and fatalities, they are here to stay. Handicappers will be forced "kicking and screaming" to learn about and bet on these surfaces, as the next two Breeders' Cups, both at Santa Anita, will be run over the Pro-Ride synthetic surface, along with such major stakes races as the Lane's End, the Blue Grass, the Queen's Plate, and the Kentucky Cup. In his new book, Betting Synthetic Surfaces, New York based turfwriter and radio host Bill Finley sets out to help horseplayers who find themselves having to bet on races on this strange new surface, which is not dirt but is definitely not turf. Some bettors have found the new surfaces to be puzzling, and Finley is the first author to tackle all the necessary handicapping adjustments and angles.

Using very detailed research and expertly outlined statistics culled from thousands of races, Finley serves to educate the player on what angles to look for in synthetic races: track biases, running styles, pedigrees, form cycles (the "bounce"), and surface switches between synthetic, conventional dirt, and turf tracks. He examines in detail the nuances and quirks of the new surfaces and confirms that basic handicapping fundamentals are still necessary and very useful, despite some "strange" results in those first few meetings run over the synthetic. Although synthetic had been marketed as "bias free" in some circles, nothing could be further from the truth, just that the biases are not the same as would be experienced over dirt. The most glaring example of this is how Keeneland switched from an inside speed biased track to an outside closer track when Polytrack was installed. Dirt tracks are mostly affected by the amount of water in them, while temperature is the biggest contributor to bias on synthetics as it directly affects the wax component and thus the amount of kickback.

Perhaps the most useful section of the book appears in Chapter 5, where he discusses which sires do best or worst on synthetic surfaces. Contrary to popular belief, not all turf sires are good synthetic sires, just as not all dirt sires are poor on the synthetic. A list of sires compiled by Thoro-Graph which includes winning percentage, in-the-money percentage, and return on investment both overall and in first-time starts, covering races through December 18, 2007 is included here. This may prove to be an invaluable tool especially in maiden races or when a horse is switching to synthetic from dirt or turf for the first time. Finley takes the time to explain the differences between the synthetic formulas used: Polytrack, Cushion Track, Tapeta Footings, and Pro-Ride. Just like in the dirt world where Churchill Downs does not feel the same as Belmont Park, the same applies in the synthetic world, where the Polytrack at Del Mar plays differently from the Pro-Ride at Santa Anita.

Bill Finley has put together a very useful work aid horseplayers who initially avoided synthetic tracks to eventually learn how to bet these tracks on a regular basis, as it is the betting handle that keeps the sport going. Synthetic tracks are better for the horses, and with fewer horses injured or killed, it follows that larger fields and more races will be offered. In the end, this is better for the player and in turn better for the sport.

Betting Synthetic Surfaces has a cover price of $24.95 and can be ordered for only $16.47.

Rating:     4/5

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