Brad Free wrote a voluminous preview piece - even longer than this post - [UPDATE: maybe] - on the Del Mar meet which started on Wednesday (subscription only). Opening day featured the usual perfect weather and a record crowd, though a lower handle than last year despite an extra race. And there was that unfortunate ugly breakdown and the resulting injury to jockey Rafael Bejarano. The ups and downs of the game.
I've printed out a copy of Free's article and it will certainly accompany me to Del Mar when I arrive there on Saturday. It's more of a family vacation (two teenagers and a Head Chef) to a condo in Solana Beach right on the bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean rather than a track trip per se. But I imagine that I just might make it over there a few times. I'm happy that the budget crisis in the state has, as far as I know, not doomed the free shuttle bus to the track from the nearby train station.
Unfortunately, Free's piece is from the Form's subscription section, so I don't feel at liberty to reprint large parts of it here. However, if you plan on wagering generously during the meet, it might be worth the price of the subscription just to check it out, filled with interesting and eclectic statistics and angles as it is....though the author himself concedes that, given the changes in the Polytrack from Year One to Year Two, we don't quite know what Year Three will bring. Free writes that the watering of the track will be somewhere between the first year, when there was none and the track was slow, and last year when the track sped up drastically. He gets into a detailed discussion of what to watch for in terms of track maintenance ("It's a lot to keep track of, even before analyzing horses"), and delves into specific distances and classes, dispensing some advice which certainly seems worth following (such as, watch out for the class droppers in those ubiquitous 25K maiden claiming sprints!).
One item from the article which I will reprint here has to do with those two dark days I mentioned, as the track has cut back from the traditional six to five days (Wed thru Sun) this year.
"I'm hoping it allows us to offer a better product," [Racing Secretary Tom] Robbins said. "With that day off, it allows better spacing between certain races, which we haven't had the luxury of doing. Instead of an allowance race being used on a Monday and bringing it back in 14 days, we can bring it back in 17 or 18 days. It allows more comfortable spacing."I know this would be a non-starter in Saratoga, but as I've been saying, the meet is a week too long, at least in my estimation. Robbins' argument resonates strongly for Saratoga in light of the drastic dropoff in quality around the middle of the meet.
And the other thing about Del Mar that will never happen at Saratoga is....
Well, I dare not say it, though I'll be thinking it when I hopefully make it up there later in the meet and it's (hopefully not) sloppy and off-the-turf and I'm getting all the scratches from Durkin. "....in review, that's 1A, 2B, 4,5,6,8,10,11,12, and 15 (don't you just hate it when the main-track only horse scratches??? there oughta be a law!)
Now some people are going 'oh, now this idiot is suggesting a synthetic track at Sacred Saratoga?' Well, no, I do have certain standards of tradition myself. But, just say that some day soon, someone develops a synthetic surface on which horses perfectly replicate their dirt form, there's no sloppy tracks, no track bias, and, if not a significant reduction of injuries (hard to accomplish that after last year), there's at the very least no more than before. Would you still then be opposed to it at Saratoga merely due to tradition - to its being something, anything other than natural dirt?
That's where many of you and I will have to agree to disagree - personally, I could care less what they're running on. What difference does it make; why does it have to be dirt if it (kinda) looks and acts (in some cases and to a certain extent) like dirt, and supports viable and competitive horse racing meets, as synthetic tracks have, increasingly over time, been proving themselves capable of doing. When Nick Zito says stuff like "God made dirt and God made grass," that's just blabbering bullshit to me.
And while I really don't want to write about Jess Jackson, I think that his visceral dismissal of the surface as "plastic" (this from a man who last year said: “I think it's bad for racing to have trash talk,” when baited by Dutrow over Big Brown) brought the debate to a new low. He coined a cute and concise new buzzword which has been regularly repeated without regard to its meaning. Of which it really has absolutely none as far I'm concerned. If he had said "well, I won't run her because statistics show an increase in injuries;" or "well, she ran poorly when she ran on it before," that would be one thing. But if it's just because you can't grow anything out of it, then I find that argument to be a vacant one. Please, feel free to tell us why you don't like synthetic tracks, but I'd like to hear some real, substantive arguments.
Don't get me wrong, it's not like I have no misgivings whatsoever about the surfaces myself. Steven Crist wrote a few weeks ago in favor of a "more thoughtful debate about the place of synthetic tracks at the highest level of racing," and I have to agree. It's a big disappointment to me that the surfaces play so differently in many cases, and it definitely makes determining the true champions close to impossible.
That's unfortunate, and that is at least one compelling anti-synthetic argument in my mind. Having said that however, it's been my position that if this sport ever regains its past popularity as a spectator sport, it will be because of the gambling rather than a successful effort to market stars who race infrequently and disappear before the public really gets to know them. It's the everyday bread-and-butter races which are the heart of the sport, for horseplayers and, hopefully, horseplayers-to-be, as well as for the vsst majority of the human participants. So, as legitimate as the point about championships may be, I don't think it should be the deciding factor in the debate.
Meanwhile, I'm going to be at Del Mar (y'know, from time to time), where the races will be run on the dreaded "plastic." While I might see a few graded stakes run over the Polytrack, it's not likely I'll spend much time agonizing over the implication (or lack thereof) of the results. There will be plenty of 25K claiming affairs to conquer. And, the track will be fast - every single day - the fields will be full, the winners will come from on the lead, mid-pack, and from way out of it, they'll be favorites, 8-1 shots, and impossible longshots. Check out the results charts for the first two days And the CHRB reports that fatal injuries are down 11% from the old days when the track played to speed and the races were a boring parade of front-runners. Sounds pretty good to me (and the weather certainly doesn't hurt).
So what, exactly, is the problem?