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Thursday, July 23, 2009

What's The Problem?

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. " 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?


Ray Paulick said...

Hope you have a great time, Alan, and that we can meet while you're in Del Mar. Be sure to hit Roberto's if you like Mexican food. It's on the north end of Solana Beach on the coast rode (101).

ballyfager said...

The problem is that it introduces one more unknown variable to a game that already has too much of that. And it does so to no good purpose since there isn't and never was any proof that it's better for the horses.

By the way, are you aware that Richard Shapiro, who was the chairman of the CHRB when the plastic was mandated, has been charged with keying the car of an antagonist. A 56 yr. old man who keys a car? Yeah, let's go with his judgment.

o_crunk said...

The synth tracks seem to me to be just as easily gamed for a bias as dirt but then again I've never seen a horse win by 10 or 15 lengths on synthetic. It's really as simple as aethetics. Racing's signature moment of all time does not happen if Secretariat is running his Belmont on synth. In recent years, the synths have been gamed to look and play more like dirt at both KEE and DMR and that's a welcome adaptation away from the first couple years of synthetic racing being dishonest holding of horses by jockeys because of the feared speed bias. Seems like synths are settling in but there is still that issue of aesthetics. I know I haven't played much CA racing since it's been installed. The patterns of handicapping just make no sense to me out there.

Anonymous said...

You make many valid points but races coming off the turf rarely effected the game in SD.

El Angelo said...

Alan, you're a big hockey fan. What would you think if they started playing NHL games on the new-fangled synthetic ice?

Alan Mann said...

>>What would you think if they started playing NHL games on the new-fangled synthetic ice?

Well, that's certainly a fair be perfectly honest, I suppose I would probably initially react with the same revulsion that a lot have done regarding synthetics. However, I'd like to think I'd be objective, and that, if the surface played consistently and didn't slow down the game by getting choppy when the weather was hot or when there were too many events at MSG, and maybe cut down a little on injuries caused by skates getting caught in ruts, that I would appreciate the benefits and accept the positives as being good for the sport. On the other hand, if, as with artificial turf, it proved to be difficult to maintain and actually increased the number of injuries, then I'd want it put out to pasture.

Another point that Brad Free made in his piece is that, in the big picture, we're still very early on in the synthetic game. You have to expect fits and starts along the way. However, since the debacles early in the year at Santa Anita and Turfway, things seem to be going pretty smoothly of late (though you won't read about that in the mainstream racing press.....or in the blogosphere for that matter).

Anonymous said...

Del Mar post its "Track" Maintenance Report every day at 1:15 pm.

ballyfager said...

Brad Free says "we're still very early on in the synthetic game". That remains to be seen. I think it's just as likely that Del Mar, Santa Anita, & Keeneland will remove it.

It's either that or risk losing their relevance.

Alan Mann said...

>>It's either that or risk losing their relevance.

bally - Do you believe that, for example, Sinister Minister's Blue Grass win on the Keeneland dirt speedway was any more relevant than any of the synthetic winners since?

And....he keyed a car?? :-|

Ray - Thanks for the restaurant tip, the Head Chef appreciates that much!

ballyfager said...

Alan, re Sinister Minister's Blue Grass, no it wasn't relevant and any experienced horsplayer would have been leery of it. Ditto for Bellamy Road's Wood.

I'm sure the Keeneland speed bias was a major factor in why they switched to synthetic. Have they made it better? I don't think so.

Momouth, Delaware & Philly Park, to name three tracks around here, all have a speed bias. But, I hope they continue to have the sense not to do what Keeneland did.

As to the Shapiro thing, I got the story from Equidaily. Don't know if it's still up on that site or not. The victim in the incident has apparently become a real thorn in the side of the Cal. racing establishment. He's a guy who owns quite a few horses and won't even race in California anymore.

Matt said...

The Sinister Minister comment is 100% right on. We hear a lot of talk about "throw out the results on synthetics" and how they are unreliable for predicting future performance on another surface. How is that any different from what went on at Keeneland for years where you get the lead on the rail and coast home. (Some people touted Sinister Minister as a "monster" prior to the Derby due to his Keeneland win and high "speed" figure...has he ever won a race since?)

I'll never understand why players don't just accept synthetcs as a third surface and adjust their handicapping methods accordingly instead of contantly complaining about how "plastics" don't play like dirt. In an era where information flows like never before, I welcome a suface that increases the complexities of the game and greatly reduces the horrible biases like we used to see at Keeneland.

El Angelo said...

Matt, I don't disagree with your point. I think synthetics really are to be treated as a 3d surface, which in and of itself, isn't a bad thing. But to run the BC over them is a travesty, because they're not dirt.

Unknown said...

I agree with your point about Nick Zito and Jess Jackson. They are just trying to produce sound bites and do not address the issue.

However, I can tell you what the problem is with Del Mar's Polytrack surface. Polytrack is billed as a surface that does not change due to weather. Horses should not need to scratch on rainy days because the track's condition should stay the same.

Well, it turns out the surface does change with the weather, as Brad Free's discussion about track maintenance demonstrates.

I can't believe this does not receive more coverage. One of the supposed major benefits of Polytrack has proven to be absolutely false. The weather affects the surface!

Anonymous said...

Alan said...

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.

Of course the CHRB are comparing injuries to really Poor Dirt tracks "from the old days"


Ray Paulick said...


Don't want to mislead you on Roberto's--not sure I would call it a restaurant. It's a stand in line to order and sit outside kind of place, but it's pretty good food. If you want a Mexican restaurant with good food, go to Fidel's.

Alan Mann said...

>>Don't want to mislead you on Roberto's....

That's perfect, because I don't much care for Mexican. So the Head Chef can go there for lunch with the kids and sit outside and eat while I'm drinking a Del Margarita at the races!

>>One of the supposed major benefits of Polytrack has proven to be absolutely false. The weather affects the surface!

Remember there was supposed to be no kickback too. I agree it hasn't completely lived up to its billing. But I maintain that it has its benefits, and that it beats the hell out of speed-dominating tracks.

And besides, the weather there barely changes from day to day! (at least afternoon to afternoon, we know it does indeed change from the cooler mornings.)

Anonymous said...


There is about 300 Roberto's in San Diego county.

Can't remember the name of the restaurant but if you drive to downtown Del Mar(about 1-2 miles on the left from the track)there is a nice restaurant upstairs with a deck where you can see the sunset after the races.


Alan Mann said...

...there is a nice restaurant upstairs with a deck where you can see the sunset after the races.

Is that Jake's maybe? We have a reservation there for the Head Chef's birthday, anyone know if it's good?

Looking for a recommendation in the Gaslight District in San Diego too...

Anonymous said...

...there is a nice restaurant upstairs with a deck where you can see the sunset after the races.

Is that Jake's maybe?

Sorry,Can't remember?

Recommend "Old Town" for Lunch or Dinner.It's just north of Downtowm(Gaslight)and not to far from the Beaches.

By the way,Amtrack will drop you off a block away from the Gaslight.


Anonymous said...

the most infuriating thing about polytrack and the other artificial turfs for horses is that the biggest early adopter and promoter, who assured us about all the great things it was supposed to do and/or prevent (unproven as yet or false as earlier commenters have stated) is keeneland and they own the shit and are laughing all the way to the bank. go here and they'll tell you suckers all about it.

cheers, chris (another sucker)

RayPaulick said...

Jake's is right on the beach next to Poseison restaurant...good for lunch, dinner or drinks (Jake's, that is, not much of a Poseidon fan). It's just down street for intersection of Camino del Mar and 15th Street. At that intersection is a Starbucks and on the other side is small group of shops including the restaurant up high that overlooks the ocean. I think it's Pacifica Del Mar. Good but pricey. Lots of places all over...I'm sure you and head chef will eat well enough.

Have a great trip.

Anonymous said...

As a big horse racing fan and handicapper I HATE synthetic tracks. !!!!!

Anonymous said...

Alan, forget the Utopian, perfect polytrack schemes and accept grass and dirt for what they are. A synthetic main track at Saratoga would be the end of the Spa's grand tradition- and besides it will be blocked due to the track's status as a National Historic Landmark. So, don't even think about it. Enjoy the polytrack at Del Mar and tell us all about it on LATG.
P.S.- Glanced at front page of The Saratogian on line today and see Sen Chuck "The Schmuck" Schumer in his usual photo-op- hogging mode at the ground breaking for the $4.2 billlion microchip plant in the Luther Forest Technology Park south of town. Joe Bruno, the real driving force behind the project, barely gets a nod from his old pal, David Paterson. How quickly we forget.I suppose Joe is staying below the radar until he can beat the phony rap they have going against him down in Albany. Hope to see him at the track, though, he's a real racing fan.

Anonymous said...

I have no problem whatsoever with tracks installing synthetics tracks, this is America last time I checked and they can do what they wish.

I do have a problem with mandates to install such tracks, and I do have a problem with the Breeders Cup Dirt Championships being run on synthetics, ever, much less two years in a row.

As a commenter stated above, the Classic, Sprint etc allegedly usually decide the Eclipse Award winners for dirt runners, and should be decided on the dirt.

If they wish to add a Breeders Cup Synthetic Classic by all means they should do so, but I am not buying that running the real Classic on that surface is a fair platform to decide the American Horse of The Year.

As for installing the surface in NY, I would have no problem installing one where the Big A inner now exists. In fact, they could card races on three distinct surfaces for part of the year which would be intriguing, and off the turf races would be moved to the synth, best of both worlds.

Belmont is big enough that they could theoretically install a training track inside the two turf courses that could also see duty for off the turf races.

But the Spa is the Spa, and there have been sloppy tracks going on up there forever. The unpredictable weather is part of the charm, and except for the one year when Noah was seens beginning an arc in the infield, it usually does not effect that many races.

Do not fix what is not broken.

Anonymous said...

What is the other hocus pocus I have always heard about Del Mar? The tides affect how the track plays? True or just another Del Mar myth? Handicappers can come up with an unlimited supply of excuses as to why they lose.

I wouldn't imagine that the tides would impact polytrack- anyway, that's why you run polytrack, it's just one less thing to worry about, right, Alan?! Control/reduce the predictor variables for greater returns, the gambler's edge, as they say.

Alan, hope you have your voice so you can sing along when Bing starts crooning "Where the Turf Meets The Surf" over the P.A.?
Restaurants- I've heard a great deal about In-N-Out Burger as the cult classic SoCal burger. How about you veterans- is In-N-Out all they say it is?

Will be interesting to hear your comments on how Del Mar players are said to hit the beach after the races instead of heading into town, obsessing about the day's losses, and cracking open the next day's Form to get even, as Spa fans are wont to do. Ah, why do that when you can hit the beach! California Dreamin'...

Anonymous said...

While on the subject of recent BC foolishness, I see they have relented to criticism and added The Whitney as a win and your in race, not that the winner would ever fail to make the field regardless.

Just a tad political when not a single SPA race is considered "win and your in" worthy, it seems to me.

Anonymous said...

As for the reduction in breakdowns, 2006 was a horrible year for sure to be a horse at DelMar, but it was the exception not the rule.

There has been at least one well reported breakdown in training so far, and the first in a race occurred Friday.

It is a far too small statistical sample to just compare 2006 with 07/08, but it is even more unfair to attribute any decrease in fatalities solely to the synth.

First, they have instituted new pre race vet standards, and second and perhaps more importantly, they install a new modern base with every new modern synth track.

Many are of the opinion that the base is the true problem, and many dirt tracks would become safer if they just installed a new modern base and coverered it with the same dirt/sand mix in existance currently, and then of course paid as much attention to maintaining that dirt surface as they do to the new synth.

Anyway, enjoy the trip, make some money, and make us part of it by blogging a little along the way. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Does the Head Chef do grunnion? They'll be running in the first week in August.

Anonymous said...

With the attention paid to dirt tracks now, I wonder if the fatality rate would have gone down in California if they just put more effort into a safer dirt track. What a waste of money. I don't even play California anymore because of the plastics. California doesn't exist to me gambling wise.

Anonymous said...

I play mostly pick sixes and had absolutely no interest today despite the carryover.

Have tried and failed to figure out the synths, perhaps I am just too old and crabby to learn something new but all the variables drive me up a wall leading to a zero confidence level.

I might be tempted to learn if they decided on one surface, but each plays differently and I simply have no patience to learn, not with the many other options available.

Will I dabble on big race days, sure, but not investing serious money.

Anonymous said...

From Steve Crist's DRF piece on synthetics: "Regardless of what you think of synthetic tracks - whether they are a well-meaning idea that needs a longer trial, or a mistake that will eventually go the way of Astroturf." In retrospect they should have tried them first on the minor league tracks since these tracks run higher numbers of less than sound horses.

Same with nationalized health care- why in hell would we want Obamacare? Why would we ever take the best quality care in the world and let the gu'mint run it? Are you crazy?! State of CA steps in and mandates plastic. Result? No clear improvement in race horse safety but the unintended consequences have thrown the racing world into confusion.

Anonymous said...

Are you telling me that old crook Bruno is both still alive and still not in jail? Boy the wheels of justice grind slow.

Anonymous said...

"Same with nationalized health care- why in hell would we want Obamacare? Why would we ever take the best quality care in the world and let the gu'mint run it? Are you crazy?!"

When I hear someone talking this kind of smack I assume the speaker must belong to one of those special interests who make a fortune from our rediculous health care system.

Anyhow the past performances show that if you bet on Obama to get what he wants, you end up cashing your ticket.

Anonymous said...

No, Anon, I have no horse in the health care race, I just pay large premiums. But no matter how high the premiums are, it is still far better than letting the gu'mint anywhere near health care- or, should I say, any more than it already is. Obama may be a legit 3-5 shot on a lot of races but not in this one, he's fading fast in ther stretch and it can't happen soon enough. These people are dangerous to your health anyway you look at it. /S/greenmtnpunter

El Angelo said...

GMP: I'm sure the tens of millions of uninsured Americans would agree with your view. Oh wait...

Like it or not, the day of reckoning for this country has come, and we all have to pay our fair share. Statements that the government can't run anything are unproductive and untruthful.