Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Surface to Surface

Comparing track profiles, Nick Kling finds something interesting in the data:

One thing the results make clear is that the purported gulf between the winning profiles at dirt and synthetic tracks is far less significant than believed. Note the narrow margin between routes at Belmont, Gulfstream, the Aqueduct main track, and Santa Anita’s synthetic surface.

Part of the reason for that is jockeys who ride regularly on synthetic tracks have adjusted to the nature of those surfaces. When Keeneland debuted its Polytrack in the fall of 2006 it appeared to be a stone-cold closers’ racetrack. Part of that perception, however, was its stark comparison to the old dirt surface at Keeneland, which featured an iron inside/speed bias most of the time.

There’s one caveat:

Nevertheless, don’t make the mistake of believing dirt and synthetic form is interchangeable. It is not. Dirt horses switching to the ersatz earth have done very poorly. Conversely, synthetic-based animals have done fairly well when they move to dirt.

That the move from synthetic from dirt is easier than that from dirt to synthetic is now conventional wisdom. The “results show that it is easier,” trainer John Sadler — who will start Santa Anita Derby winner Sidney’s Candy and Arkansas Derby winner Line of David in the Kentucky Derby — told Jay Privman earlier this month. But is that what the results show?

In April 2008, I did a bit of research that found of 61 Triple Crown nominees making the switch from a synthetic surface to a fast dirt track, 47 improved or replicated their synthetic form on dirt. Curious about horses going dirt to synthetic, I similarly went through this year’s Triple Crown nominees last week (before the Blue Grass Stakes), identifying 31 who started their careers on dirt before moving to a synthetic surface. As in 2008, I didn’t take into account changes in distance or class, and I classified synthetic starts as positive (meaning the horse showed improvement over its previous start on dirt), consistent (the horse ran a race much like its previous start), or negative (the horse ran poorly compared to its previous start). Of the 31 Triple Crown nominees who went from dirt to synthetic, 10 improved with the switch and 10 showed little change, with eight of those 20 winning winning their synthetic start. The remaining 11 ran worse. Most interesting to me about the 11 who ran worse was that eight of those horses started in the G1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland or in the Breeders’ Cup, raising a couple of questions:

1) Fewer horses seem to move from dirt to synthetic than from synthetic to dirt, and may be more likely to do so for the purpose of entering a stakes race. Could class be more of a factor than the surface in the resulting performance?

2) When high profile dirt horses fail falter over synthetic surfaces, such as Street Sense in the 2007 Blue Grass Stakes or Curlin in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic, the view that dirt to synthetic is more difficult is reinforced. Could such outcomes be skewing perceptions?


5 Comments

Street Sense lost the Blue Grass by a nose. He hardly failed.

Posted by EJXD2 on April 21, 2010 @ 9:37 am

As always, Ed, I appreciate the correction. I should have double-checked the 2007 Blue Grass results. How about Pyro as an alternate example? He was hot coming off a win in the Louisiana Derby, went to post as the even-money favorite, finished tenth.

Posted by Jessica on April 21, 2010 @ 10:06 am

I wasn’t really seeing it as a correction (he did lose); I just thought FAIL was too strong a word, though Street Sense clearly was better on dirt than Polytrack (0/3 on that surface, including two losses as around even money favorite).

Posted by EJXD2 on April 21, 2010 @ 10:14 am

Fair point. Made a word change above.

Posted by Jessica on April 21, 2010 @ 10:21 am

[…] mining on 2009 synthetic-to-dirt/dirt-to-synthetic moves in JCapper after reading the post “Surface to Surface” earlier this […]

Posted by Jessica Chapel / Railbird v2 - Odds and Ends on April 29, 2010 @ 11:08 pm