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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

This Bud's For You?

- Major league baseball could have used some Polytrack to spread around the infield and pitcher's mound in Philadelphia on Monday night. Then perhaps they could have waded through the rest of Game 5 and avoided the ongoing festering delay. (But do you think that Jimmy Rollins would like the synth?)

On the other hand, thoroughbred racing could use a commissioner like Bud Selig. OK, well, maybe not Bud Selig himself! I'm certainly not defending the dunderhead move to start the game at all, nor the puzzling decision to keep his imperial rule change a secret, nor seeing the game through as long as it went despite his secret edict.

However, Selig understood that having the World Series potentially decided in a rain shortened game could cast a cloud upon the sport's championship, and was correct in my view in insisting on a complete nine innings (and thereby having only incompetent umpiring mar the proceedings).

Racing's Horse of the Year championship is under a cloud of its own, given Curlin's defeat on a synthetic surface. His disappointing 4th was made particularly so considering his exhilarating move to the front which commenced somewhere around the turn I think, I'm not exactly sure where. (Note to ESPN: A simple track diagram with a dot marking the leader's progress would be a simple yet highly effective tool with which to accompany your unnecessarily eclectic camera angles.) (And you know, the standard pan shot has always served us all pretty well.)

Of course, who knows, maybe it had nothing to do with the Pro-Ride. I've suspected for some time that Curlin has not been at his best since Dubai, and he lost to two of Europe's best, after all. And I don't know that you can really draw any definitive conclusions as to how horses from out east handled the track based on what was a relatively limited sample. Midnight Lute won after all, and horses like Cocoa Beach and Sky Diva ran well behind monsters. Regardless, I can't help but think that this year's Breeders' Cup has served to increase not only the perception, but also the reality of the division between synthetic tracks and natural dirt. As this reader noted: Wait until next year, when no horse based east of the MS ships west to the World Championships. Really, not that many did even this year. (And I love this idea to have a Dirt Championship day at Belmont the week before.)

So what would Bud Selig, as a true commissioner of racing with real powers, do to ensure that racing's championships have true integrity? He might order the site of the 2009 Breeders' Cup moved to a dirt track. But that wouldn't make the Euros or the California horsemen happy, and such an event would likely turn into as much of a regional affair as next year's BC will be.

Or, he could issue a decree that, say within three to five years, the industry has to make a decision one way or another. Dirt? Or synthetic tracks? I've been reading this notion that the two are destined to co-exist. But as long as that's the case, we'll always have this controversy and uncertainty over championships, and the Breeders' Cup will attract mostly horses already familiar with whichever surface is in place at the host track. So I don't believe that dual main track surfaces would serve this sport any better than having a designated hitter in one league has served baseball.

There are a lot of good reasons in my mind for the industry to switch to synthetic surfaces. They can virtually eliminate track bias, particularly the dreadful speed parades we used to see at Keeneland; the days of sloppy tracks would be past; they are, I think we can say, at least not any unsafer than dirt, and the races would make far more sense from a pace standpoint. Randy Moss explained at one point on ESPN that horses in dirt races start out fast, decelerate steadily, and stagger to the finish. That's thoroughbred racing's dirty little secret as far as I'm concerned. I've never thought that's the way races should be run.

But of course, there's the tradition of dirt tracks. I've kind of glazed over that and been critical of those who have little more than that to offer in defense. However, I'm not at all insensitive to tradition either. To me, interleague play is a nightmare from which I still hope to one day awake. This year's Breeders' Cup, with the sight of Curlin fading against horses he should have been able to crush (with my $20 cold double with Conduit going down the drain), has served to highlight the differences between the two surfaces; differences which, in the fervent hope of a better sport, I heretofore cast in a minimal light. There seems less doubt to me now that the divide is rather profound.

So racing has some tough decisions ahead, and I'm glad I don't have to make them. That's what people like Bud Selig are for. (Well, maybe not Bud Selig himself....)


Anonymous said...

Is there a more boring debate on the planet earth than who should win horse of the year? I've noticed all my favorite racing sites are cluttered with the back-and-forth. I can't say I find myself captivated.

El Angelo said...

I think a not-awful comparison between dirt and synthetic is the comparison between grass and Astroturf. They can co-exist, but they are different, and you're wise to build around them accordingly.

Anonymous said...

With the point system which should be in place, Curlin is still HOY since there is no other contender who comes close to his record in Grade I's in 2007 and 2008, despite the champ's 4th place finish in the BC Classic. Zenyatta, you say? Top filly in her class but not HOY.

Kudos to Jess Jackson for entering and running Curlin on the synthetic surface- it proves his sportsman's bona fides once again. Since synthetic tracks will remain in the mix for Grade I "dirt" stakes events, all the more reason to go to a point system to determine Eclipse Awards and HOY and drop this Super Bowl format, once and for all.

Plan B: Go to 3 days at 2 tracks so you can run all of the dirt events on dirt, and then run all of the same events on "Synthetic". What is needed is a series of Grade I events that follow the sun, beginning with FL and CA in February, moving north in spring and summer, and culminating in the BC in late October. Each major track gets to build on it's area fan base, as well as the national fan base, around it's marquee Grade I's, and thereby each track gets it's day in the sun.

As for the Pro-Ride surface, I think Bobby Frankel summed it up best in Ray Kerrison's column in Saturday's NY Post. Frankel states that the synthetic surfaces are one of racing's greatest hoaxes. Frankel says "At Del Mar this year we had five horse fatalities on the synthetic track. At Saratoga, with 30 percent more racing, they did not have one race fatality on the dirt. It's all bogus, the greatest sales job I've seen." Leave it to Bobby Frankel to lay it on the line, even more so than Nick Zito. Kerrison's column intimates that synthetic surfaces are just another example of the California culture's penchant for going with the latest, untested, fad du jour. Charlie Hayward, nota bene! /S/greenmtnpunter

Anonymous said...

The sample size between Saratoga and Del Mar is not statistically significant. You have to look at the big picture. I don't think they'd be going to synthetic surfaces if they weren't notably safer. But I could be wrong. More stats are needed. Safety should come first. There was nothing wrong with the racing on BC Day, and I say that even though I didn't cash.

Anonymous said...

Add this horse to your watch list.


HE may be No. 1 in prime time cable, but on the racetrack, Bill O'Reilly can't win, place or show. Two-year-old No Bloviating - its name inspired by O'Reilly and owned by a group that includes Fox News employees - ran out of the money Sunday at Belmont. Quipped former Fox News guy Bill McCuddy, "I heard the horse ran on the outside right, but claimed after the race it ran in the center."

Anonymous said...

From Sunny Jim in New Jersey -

I couldn't agree more with anon above that there is way too much ink spilled over who is horse of the year. The debate for all these months has been over Big Brown and Curlin, when all the while the best horses may have been stabled in Europe.

And regarding handicapping here's another ironic thing: All you heard leading up to the Breeder's Cup was how difficult the synthetic surface was making the handicapping. As it turned out, the 'dirt' races were run way more to form than the turf races were.

I don't know about you, but I found the majority of Friday and Saturday's turf races complete crapshoots. They were un-handicappable, with winners and gimmicks paying all kinds of big prices and you may as well have just boxed your favorite numbers like my grandmother used to do.

I went back and checked the picks of the 'experts' in the media and, no, they had very little success either with the weekend's turf handicapping.


Anonymous said...

The Breeder's Cup is always somewhat of a crapshoot because the fields tend to be deeper than just about any race you might find throughout the year. With so much quality horseflesh, there are less toss-outs. On the plus side, when you are right you usually get paid.

Alan Mann said...

>>As it turned out, the 'dirt' races were run way more to form than the turf races were.

True that, but I think that mostly due to the fact that most of the prime contenders were already California-based synthetic track horses. I think that the entries and the results would have much different had the races been run in the east, and I don't believe that's the kind of level playing field that the Breeders' Cup should be.

steve in nc said...

I'll post again in favor of having more variables, such as a third surface, rather than fewer.

They give the sport:

1) Character. Wasn't the GB Packers beating Dallas at 15 below more memorable than most super bowls played in domes? Don't baseball fans love Fenway, Wrigley, and Yankee Stadium even though their playing fields are hardly level for all hitters?

2) Controversy -- arguments over who is better, like baseball's MVP, arouse more passion and are more meaningful than statistically-based prizes like the Rolaids thing for relievers. And having an officially-settled championship can't happen in racing anyway given the frequent injuries and light racing schedules of today's horses.

3) More interesting gambling opportunities. Fewer variables and more certainties make for smaller fields (how many would have challenged Curlin on dirt?), and fewer good value plays. I don't agree that east coast dirt track trainers won't bother next year. Many trainers and more owners are eternal optimists. And some horses (Midnight Lute) will be able to handle both, and inspire others to try.

But if the sport has to be unified behind one non-grass surface, the last two years' BCs surely make a great case for synthetics, unless your business is selling goggles to jockeys. The Monmouth mud was a disaster.

As for me, I think it's fine to have triple crown races on dirt and BC races on poly.

The more serious need is all those weekends the rest of the year. NTRA needs to apply pressure to coordinate the stakes calendar nationally calendar so that top horses can't duck each other and dominate 5-horse fields for huge purses. Dirt or poly, those races are usually worth neither betting on nor watching.

El Angelo said...

I think Steve has some good points, even though I disagree with them. I think the biggest problem a lot of people have is that synthetics really aren't the same thing as dirt or turf. If that's the case, then saying they're the championship for divisions is folly.

Anonymous said...

The case cannot be made for synthetics, that's the bottom line. The "let's have all synthetics now" crowd chant the same hollow argument of the folks who chant "Change Now"- but have no idea what that change will bring. It's as if dirt tracks have become the George Bush of racing and synthetics are the Obama of '08. To go all synthetics to meet the needs of the Breeders Cup, or any other Grade I race, or to go all synthetics because it eliminates off tracks is just as meaningless as "Change Now". The major East Coast racing circuits should not cave in to synthetic tracks. Why should they? Let the market decide, i.e., the horsemen and fans, instead of falling into place with the unwise decree of CA racing bureaucrats. /S/greenmtnpunter

Anonymous said...

Hey Neocon hatemonger. "Change" as you put it, is coming whether you like it or not. It will be a landslide next Tuesday. Bend over, Greenmountain dork.

-Moderate Voter

Anonymous said...

Synthetic sucks. It's just turf racing by another name.

"Moderate" Voter. Of course you're a moderate. We all think we're moderates.

Anonymous said...

Whether I'm moderate or not isn't really the issue. The latest McPalin hail mary is to call Obama "Socialist." To me that reeks of fascist McCarthyism.

Here's the truth, IMO. McPalin is very far to the right. Obama is in the middle, perhaps even leaning to the right.

And again, the bottom line is that the majority of voters are no longer fooled by the fear/hate tactics of the soon-to-be-dead GOP. It will be a bloodbath of epic proportions this Tuesday. Obama wins close to 400 EVs, and the house and senate get filled with democrats.

So, as I was saying, BEND OVER!

Alan Mann said...

>>So, as I was saying, BEND OVER!

Now now...while I of course agree with your sentiments (though I'm far too nervous to make the same brash predictions), the misguided Greenmountaineer is a friend, so let's keep it respectful please.

steve in nc said...

El Angelo -- First of all, thanks for being able to appreciate views other than your own! And I agree with you that so long as most big non-grass races are on real dirt, awarding championships based on poly races is problematic (I won't go as far as "folly").

Problem with that view: Should Midnight Lute not get any consideration for sprinter of the year because his one good race this year was on sythetics?

GM Punter: Free market cliches won't suffice here. If purses and climate were equal, and there were both dirt and artificial surfaces available nationwide, AND if trainers/owners mostly chose one surface, we could agree that the market had spoken, and agree we should listen.

But is it feasible for CA horsemen & women to all relocate to NY or vice versa? We don't live in an economic test tube but in the real world.

And as for the "horseplayer vote," it would take two tracks next to each other with identical purses & facilities (a racing economics test tube) to count it.

So don't try to avoid the content of the racing surface argument by falling back on the inflexible free-market ideology that even Alan Greenspan, Henry Paulson, John McCain and W have been forced, by hard reality, to abandon.

Argue for dirt tracks if you like (I for one, want both), but do it on the merits, without the dated and irrelevant political allegory.

While you were busy watching Fox, the center for the rest of the nation has shifted. It wasn't Raul Castro who nationalized US banks, and Obama isn't the only major party candidate for President claiming to stand for change.

You can keep using those labels and filters of yours to see and interpret the world, or take them off and start seeing unfiltered reality. It isn't a pretty sight right now, but it is real, and its problems don't lend themselves to simplified solutions. This election can't come soon enough.

Anonymous said...

And remember when Greenmountain punter was spouting off about Palin being the "real frontierwoman" or some nonsense like that. That was before she got exposed as a kook and a fraud.

Sorry Alan, can't help myself. I'm sure greenmountain is a great guy.

Alan Mann said...

He's one of my longest serving readers and supporters, and has put up with a lot of my lefty tirades.

But yeah, I remember the "real frontierwoman" line. I let him slide on that because I like him, lol.

Anonymous said...

I think the marketplace argument falls apart for bettors like me. I decided to give Keeneland's fall meet a chance as a run up to the BC and I'm a convert now. I found the horror stories of inscrutable races beyond handicapping just aren't true. If you want to define the marketplace as a pure, unbiased determination of the best gambling product, then the synthetics should hold up well.

That said, I think for the handful of racing fans left who care more about cheering on their favorite horse, it would be nice if the major circuits standardized on one or the other. Watching form get turned upside down switching from one surface to the other can't be fun. I can't think of many Hard Spun-type horses that were good at multitasking dirt and poly, so it might take a while to breed the answer...

SaratogaSpa said...

I remember when the Astrodome was built and Astoturf was all the rage. Many ballparks followed suit with their own version of the junk. Natural grass was declared the surface of the past...
Now most ballparks have ripped the junk out, with only 3 fake surfaces remaining in baseball.

Anonymous said...

Well, *most* of the high levels of football and soccer are still played on synth. There are some pro soccer players who say the new fake stuff is truer than the real stuff.

I disagree with this analogy I've seen everywhere lately with regard to astroturf=polytrack. Baseball fields don't get torn up like football fields or soccer fields do. Further, we are not dealing with 1960's technology these days. Perhaps fieldturf could get into the synthetic horse racing surface market?


This fatality on dirt vs synth is a non-starter. The real issue is drugs. How come the euros have about half as many breakdowns per 1,000 starts as the US does. Don't think you're going to find the answer on the surface. A juiced up horse running on any surface is more likely to breakdown.

steve in nc said...

Brian said:

"Watching form get turned upside down switching from one surface to the other can't be fun."

Very true, as you noted, for fans of particular horses, like Curlin.

But for degenerate gamblers like me, seeing all that loyal 4-5 money on a horse that seemed less than 50-50 to handle the surface is one of the highlights of the racing year.

It wasn't until now that the appropriateness of Raven's Pass' name just hit, with him swooping down as the field collapsed to eat up all that dead money. Yum yum.

Anonymous said...

The debate over track surfaces is long on opinion and conjecture but lacking in critical scientific research and analysis. What we need before any conclusions can be reached is the development of a scientific system for the optimization of any and all racetrack surfaces for fairness, consistency and reduction of safety concerns. There is currently in development an apparatus that will provide the kinds of data necessary to determine not only the fairest and safest track but also the techniques necessary to properly maintain that track. The NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance has committed to help fund research to develop such a system and to provide the missing data. That work is already underway. Once completed, then and only then will the Alliance be in a position to move the industry in a particular direction taking into consideration all relevant factors. My sense is that the Alliance will not mandate a single surface but instead will require minimum levels of consistency, fairness and safety.

Anonymous said...

If any LATG readers/commenters are really serious about understanding the opposition to the prevailing status quo liberalism, check out this intro to James Kalb's new book "The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality By Command". It's a brilliant critique of the path the Obama Democrats would like to take given the opportunity.

I had always thought horseplayers are a breed of very independent, free spirited, well, "mavericks", if you'll pardon the expression, but some of these scathing comments prove me very wrong! The herd mentality prevails even with horseplayers! However, Alan, as always, takes the high road, academic approach to the search for truth by encouraging a free, open, honest discussion and examination of ideas and issues.

I would even go so far as to compare LATG to Fox News in this regard but that would probably make Alan guilty by association in the eyes of so many true believers! But then again, I think it is the supreme compliment as Fox News is far and away the leader in cable news, and I suspect that Alan, with his encouragement of all views, aspires to the same status in the rather arcane world of racing blogs. /S/greenmtnpunter

steve in nc said...

"Prevailing status quo liberalism"? Bush hasn't been much of a President, but he has been in charge, with a buncha weak kneed democrats having a House majority for less than two years now and a stalemate in the Senate.

What an incredible load of blame shifting. If you pretend the status quo is liberal, they you get to blame the mess we're in on liberals.

Liberals are not in power. And stop worrying so much. When liberals do retake power, the cadre of young conservative federal judges Bush appointed at all levels will keep their power in check.

Punter, we can disagree on lots of things, but there is some objective reality. Except during beautiful sunrises & sets, the sky isn't red and soon the political map won't be either. So take off those tinted shades and stop pretending.

And stop namecalling. I'm not part of any goddam herd. And being conservative doesn't make one a maverick -- it has been the politically comfortable position. Leading up to the Iraq war, ALL the networks ran something like 2000 interviews with people supporting the war, and you could count those opposed on your hands. Obama has maverick credentials for speaking out against the war. Bernie Sanders is a maverick. John McCain had been one at times, but he has sold his soul.

Anonymous said...

Regarding HOY, anonymous is right that no one comes close to Curlin's record in 2007-8. But it ain't horse of the yearS, it's horse of the year, and Zenyatta had a better one. And I love Curlin.
Regarding the politics, I'm going out for Haloween with an inverted red M on my face, caused by a large, mean old guy grabbing me as I waited for my bank to open-he could tell I'm an Obama fan because I'm under 70, not rich, and not a moron. There was some hot chick with him, but she split when the going got tough.