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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Good News Is No News

I saw a story on Sunday night, too late to write about it. And I figured that by the time I got around doing so, it would already have been well-discussed in the racing press, and on the blogs. However, much to my initial surprise, giving way to I should have known better, I haven't seen it picked up anywhere - not in the Form, not by the TBA, not by the non-TBA; don't even see a link on the Paulick Report....though a link depository has one.

The story concerns the outstanding recent safety records on both the Pro-Ride course at Santa Anita, and the Tapeta Footing at Golden Gate.

Since a rash of five horse breakdowns in the opening five days of racing at the current Santa Anita meet -- resulting in four fatalities -- there has been just one race-related death since Dec. 31, Dr. Rick Arthur told the California Horse Racing Board.

In a report to the board during its meeting Feb. 26, Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director, said that there have been no racing fatalities at Golden Gate Fields at its current meet. Both tracks opened their winter stands on Dec. 26.
"Going back to 2004, this is the only time I was able to find either track without a racing fatality in January," Arthur told the board. "Whatever the reason -- rain, changes in maintenance procedures, pre-race examinations -- we have had as safe of racing as anywhere in the world in January and February at our Thoroughbred tracks. Hopefully, we will be able to continue that success when the tracks dry out and the heat comes."

There were at least 5,366 starters at Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields during this time frame, he said. []
Pretty impressive stuff there. You might think that, given the interest and scrutiny of synthetic tracks, news like this would be equally as relevant as the times when there have been rashes of breakdowns...and equally deserving of mention. Certainly, a lot of people wrote about the bad times earlier this year....and I was amongst them, as I've noted before. But this story has thus far gone largely unnoticed. This board meeting took place on Feb 26, and I imagine that someone other than Bloodhorse must have reported on it! Please send me a link if you've seen it.

I think there's a real media bias at play here, in the mainstream press and the blogosphere alike. Seems to me that most simply want the synthetic tracks to fail, sometimes with a ferocity that seems illogical. I don't really get why people are so enamored with and married to racing on dirt. What could be so terrible about a surface which stays fast in the rain, eliminates boring speed biases, and which favors horses who finish strong, the way racing should be in my view, instead of horses who run fast enough early to discourage the rest, and who win merely by coming home less slowly than the others. (And yeah, if they're a bit safer, that would be cool too.)

In the comments section, readers o_crunk and DC discuss the hot-button issue of how relevant, or not, preps run on synthetic tracks are for the Derby. Yeah, I thought DC left himself open there by bringing up the Travers...but he made some good points too.

Personally, while I respect his opinion, I hope mr._crunk is wrong in this case. I still would like to see synthetics succeed; the upside, as detailed above, is too appealing in my view. And I think that a year or two of California horses shipping in to win the dirt Derby - combined with a continued run of relative safety - could only help the cause. Besides, I can't help, at this stage and specifically with respect to the prospect of them running a mile and a quarter, but fancy a horse like Pioneerof the Nile, who came home in splits of 23.46 and 5.52 in the Lewis, over one like Quality Road who slowed down to 23.76 and 25.71 after running fast early (and around one turn). Just my inclination to favor horses who finish strong, and I don't care what they're running on. As DC pointed out, Street Sense prepped in a synthetic race, and one with a pace scenario extreme even for that, with its final eighth of 11 2/5, and mediocre Beyers which turned out to be irrelevant. It seemed to serve him pretty well.

I'm not saying, of course, that Quality Road was not impressive, nor that he couldn't possibly win the Derby. He received a 113 Beyer, and Steve Crist writes that the number looks completely legit.
...the track was consistent throughout the day, there were no split variants, the other one-mile race on the card was more than three full seconds slower, and the day's five other dirt races earned fittingly modest figures of between 67 and 89.
Gary West, on his West Points blog, calls the final time of 1:35.07 towering.
The average for the week was 1:38.60. Not including the Fountain of Youth, it was 1:38.96. In winning the Davona Dale by 3 3/4 lengths, Justwhistledixie ran the second-fastest mile of the week, 1:37.67, which, of course, is about 13 lengths slower than Quality Road’s effort.
The pedigree is certainly there as I mentioned previously, and I've read that he's quite the physical specimen these days (couldn't really tell watching the replay on the tiny screen on the NTRA site). Yeah, he could be the one, sure. But can't we at least see him run in a true route race before pronouncing him as a major player?


o_crunk said...

I don't think that synthetics succeeding as a surface and having a Derby winner from CA have to be intrinsically connected. I, personally, enjoyed the BC last year. If the advent of synths means we get to see the best of the best compete on the track against one another, then I hope for the success of synthetics, even if we might disagree on the merits of the surface itself.

I'm not against synths or want the surface to fail. Capin' opinions and merits of the surface itself in regards to safety are two very different things. As you have already stated, it's too early to say if synths are at a disadvantage when Derby prepping. It's certainly too early to say if synths are any safer.

I just happen to be taking a stand in regards to Derby from a handicapping standpoint. I bet against Big Brown every single time, you won't see me arguing that BB wasn't the best 3YO last year.

ballyfager said...

It's being presented as an alternative to dirt racing. A newer, safer, improved version of dirt racing. And that's bullshit.

It's more akin to turf racing than dirt. Those of us who are not too fond of turf racing to begin with, are not going to be enamored of synthetics...ever.

alan said...

I'm curious, what is it exactly about turf racing that you don't like?

Erin said...

As Alan has said himself many times, we don't truly yet know if synthetics will be the answer to decreasing injuries to horses and riders.
But I for one am looking forward to the day we do have enough case studies and stats to make that determination, whatever it may be (although what's "enough" is of course subjective as well).
At that point I'd like to see all or nothing. All NA tracks dirt or synth. The transition of form between surfaces creates a lot of the problems for handicappers, and allows horses to be literally playing on much more different playing fields than normal track-to-track variance.
After the dust (or rather dirt or waxy fibers) settles, grumblers from whichever camp won't have much to talk about if all "non turf" surfaces are the same. It'll be settled, a moot point, and we'll all have to deal and move forward.

Mary Forney's Blog said...

Posted Saturday in the Bloodhorse online:
Thanks for pointing this out!

steve in nc said...

The press has lots of faults, but I'm not so sure they missed a big story with only 1 breakdown over 2 months. The real story can only be measured over a much longer period of time.

While I get your argument that the non-breakdowns should get equal time with the breakdowns, this really doesn't help the industry's image anyway. Probably the worst thing would be a daily scoreboard. Even if full of zeros, it would remind everyone of the daily threat.

I wouldn't be surprised if the pattern for breakdowns is typically long periods of relative tranquility with intermittent rashes of injuries & deaths due to occasional uneven surfaces.

The idea of studying something for a long enough time to get some statistical significance has been discredited during our era of impatience and anti-intellectualism, politics dominating over science, and the use of government commissions to whitewash or postpone reckoning with problems.

But this is one problem that calls for longer term statistical study, controlled experiments, and use of advanced imaging technology to learn about stress to equine bones. No breakdowns in January doesn't convince me of a thing any more than 5 in a week does.

I share your pleasure in seeing boring speed-biased dirt tracks replaced, but I hope dirt proves to be acceptable safety-wise, so we have lots of variation. This makes the puzzle more fun, and for me more profitable. I really don't care if it makes it harder to cast an Eclipse Award ballot. The variations in ballparks, changes in the ball and the mound make for great arguments and only increase baseball's charm.

Anonymous said...

I received an Email from the CHRB.Ca.Gov saying that there HAS been accidents at Golden Gate Fields, I really think you need to post the entire article before you become so easily impressed.

alan said...

Anon 2:35 - is that something you can send me please?

ballyfager said...


Time is practically meaningless

They run "about" distances

They move the rail

Variants on a given day can be unreliable because of small sample

Disparity in inherent speed of individual courses (e.g. I know FG is a slow turf course, but how much slower is it than GP)

Big fields, sharper turns, mean winner is often determined by best trip which can't be foreseen

Now I know someone is going to step up and say the same issues exist on dirt. Well, not all of them, and not to the same degree.

Also, to get back to the issue of synthetics, they just add another element of uncertainty in a game that already has more than enough of that.

Some yo-yo will step in here and say that's a good thing. Well, sometimes it is. It's amazing the prices you can catch on horses returning to dirt from synthetic where the horse's record shows a definite preference for dirt.

But over the long haul, introducing another element of uncertainty to this game is not a plus for handicappers.

And it remains to be seen whether it's helping the horses. The tracks that rushed into this pell mell are going to defend it come hell or high water, unless and until it is proved categorically that it doesn't help the horses, which is probably impossible. In the meantime, if you speak against it you're characterized as being against the horses.

SaratogaSpa said...

There were 6 deaths so far at the Big A this winter-what that does that mean? Nothing really-it has to be researched over a long period of time , as do synthetics, a task best left to scientists and statisticians.

Anonymous said...

If anyone knows about media bias It's Alan.

I still don't know which surface Is cheaper to maintain.

Does anyone Know?

Anonymous said...

ballyfager, speed figure proponents like yourself, presumably, prefer dirt for the reasons you mention, but there is more than one way to play the game.

As a pedigree student skeptical of figs, and all statistics for that matter, I prefer turf racing.

I prefer seeking value in a big field on the grass, when you can throw out half the horses who are eating up at least a third of the pool you are in essence eliminating the takeout. I completely ignore speed figures in turf racing, and find it to be an advantage.

There is more than one way to play this game, which makes it fascinating. More importantly there are plenty of races to chose from so a few races on turf per day should not impact your day. If you do not like synthetics, do not play those tracks.

For the record, I hate synth tracks, will not play serious money because there is no proven form or pedigree that works, but will defend turf racing until my dying day.

There may be slight differences between turf courses at different tracks, but there are significant differences between the different synth surfaces and to play serious money on them is silly unless you have really done your homework. I think they are a scam and refuse to bother.

Unless someone performs an INDEPENDENT study that proves to me there is a statistically significant benefit I will fight against them to my dying day. I am convinced there will be long term health risks to jockeys, and the horses that live long enough, from inhaling this crap.

There are enough reasons to dislike synths, but please don't use an alleged similarity to turf racing as an argument.

EquusEditorial said...

I've tracked 4 deaths at GG since 12/31/08. In races or in morning work:

No Name Just Game
Boy Howdy

7 deaths at SA since 12/31/08:

Boozin' Bear
Dublin Creek
It's in the Fridge
Twisted Lyric
Uta's Beauty

I don't differentiate between deaths as a result of racing and training. Work is work.

Anonymous said...

They conveniently left all the training fatalities out of this "study" which appears to be factually incorrect to begin with (check the charts for breakdowns over the last two months and you will see there have been more than one).

They also continue to leave all the horses who have suffered soft tissue injuries out of the equation.

alan said...

Ah yes, the "soft tissue injuries." Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying they are not a fact. But it's still something that I see being vaguely referred to, and only in generalities. If they are such a problem, how come some of the anti-synth horseman haven't come out with specific examples and explanations of the problem?

Glimmerglass said...

I assume the one death cited is that of 'Gloriously' at SA around Valentine's Day. This past weekend in the G3 Baldwin Stakes on the Turf it was Preemo (by Vindication) who broke down. His Trainer Jenine Sahadi said Preemo "shattered his knee" and could not be saved.

Turfway Park too had a rash of breakdowns in the last 90-days, reversed course on the toe grab ruling, and the volume of breakdowns spiked back down.

Still no track (regardless if turf, synthetic or dirt) should crow too much about deaths as that press release will only come back to bite them.

steve in nc said...

Bally, I may be a yo-yo, but I really disagree with your statement:

"But over the long haul, introducing another element of uncertainty to this game is not a plus for handicappers."

If fewer variants made for more interesting handicapping, I think harness, with every race the same distance and only one surface, would be the dominant form of racing. I'm all for more variants.

And I am a speed-figure handicapper but find no shortage of decent plays on turf.

Bally, what tracks do you like to play? I'm wondering whether there's a regional horse-cultural difference at work here, or just personal preferences.

ballyfager said...

@anon 7:46

I can't resist taking a cheap shot here. I have a friend who approaches turf races from a pedigree standpoint. He looks through the field for Dynaformer offspring. If he finds one he bets it. I don't know what he does if he finds two. But I know he loses.

Okay, cheap shot over. I bet turf races and with the big fields you get nice prices.

What I'm saying is there are a lot more turf races than there used to be. Now you throw in synthetics on top of that and dirt racing is getting crowded out.

They're trying to sell synthetic races as a substitute for dirt and I'm not buying.

Anonymous said...

Me either, your friend needs to take a refresher course on turf pedigree if he is solely focusing on Dynaformer.