JC / Railbird


The Toll

Somewhat overshadowed by the Big ‘Cap controversy is that there were two fatalities at Santa Anita on Saturday, one on the new dirt, one on turf:

According to Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, Saturday’s double fatality brought the thoroughbred death totals since the Dec. 26 start of the Santa Anita meeting to 16 — six in racing and six in training on the new dirt track and four on the grass course. Last year, for the entire meeting, and on the synthetic track that brought much anger and whining from horsemen and resulted in owner Frank Stronach replacing it with traditional dirt, there were a total of 17 deaths — six on the main track, five on the training track and six on the grass.

Live racing ends on April 17. With fewer total races carded this year over last, Santa Anita is on track for approximately 26 total fatalities during the meet.

3/9/11 Addendum: More context from Jeff Scott regarding the fatalities on the Santa Anita dirt: “The death of Redemsky brings the total to at least 12, a number that rivals the worst years on the old Santa Anita dirt before the first synthetic surface was installed in 2007.” Where’s the press on this reversion?

Fast Track

What to look for when Santa Anita opens with its new dirt surface:

… welcome back front-runners to a surface that track project manager Ted Malloy expects will reward fast horses.

“A fast track, if it’s not tiring, is always speed-favoring,” Malloy said.

See also:

“I must have worked 20-something horses that first week and 20-something the second, and the track was fast,” she said. “Like holy guacamole fast.”


“This track is going to be very good. It will probably be a little speed biased. I think dirt handicappers are going to love it.”

Circling Back

Jay Hovdey on Santa Anita’s return to dirt:

So it is ahead to the past — sealed tracks and cracked feet, burned heels and rundowns, strung-out fields shying from sandy kickback — a past in which the inability to deal with the effects of dirt tracks inspired the desperate dive into synthetics in the first place. As usual it will be up to the horses, always the horses, to survive this latest shift in the terrain.

There’s been speculation that, with the new surface, old-fashioned California super speed will make a comeback, but Thoroughbred Times reporter Jeff Lowe tweeted late Friday that, “Baffert said it’s closer to Churchill surface than anything he’s seen in Calif,” which suggests not.

The Restoration

The work of replacing Santa Anita’s synthetic surface with dirt has begun:

“We just started to take the synthetic material off today,” Malloy said on Monday. “We’ve had skip loaders out on the track, piling it up and we’ll start hauling it off tomorrow. We anticipate it’ll take about two weeks to remove all of the synthetic material.”

The project is expected to be completed mid- to late-November.

With the return of dirt, owner and CHRB member Jerry Moss predicts:

“It’ll be a rebirth of California racing at the highest form and a successful, happy, nondivisive meet.”

Such optimism. Because, as with injuries, the surface is the only issue?

I realize I’m in the minority, but I’ll miss the Santa Anita synthetic. Although more handicappers caught on during this year’s Kentucky Derby prep season, the synth-to-dirt/SA-to-east angle was a profitable one during its existence. And I didn’t regret the Pro-Ride during the 2008 and 2009 Breeders’ Cup, not after the slop at Monmouth in 2007. There was not one breakdown in those four days, no George Washington to haunt our collective memories.

Elsewhere and unrelated: A short piece on public handicappers for HRF.

Euro Take

On the news that the Santa Anita track will return to dirt:

“I’m disappointed because the European horses won’t be as effective in the BC and I can’t win as much money on backing them through the Yankie [sic] Tote.” — TiltEngine88, United Kingdom / 09:52pm – 19 Aug 10

With the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, that would have been the case this year and next anyway, TiltEngine88! And don’t forget, you still have the Turf.

Rich Eng makes a very sensible point regarding the surface change:

I don’t think this will be the game changer that many others expect it to be. The problems in California racing run a lot deeper.

Also, horsemen and horseplayers: “it’s put-up-or-shut-up time.”

Elsewhere: I haven’t done a links post in several weeks, but the bookmarking never stopped. If you liked those posts, you may like my Delicious account, to which I’ve recently saved more reactions to Santa Anita’s return to dirt, a flashback to racing at the 2001 Brockton fair, a guide to HTML5 for journalists, a summer cocktail recipe, an interview with novelist Gary Shteyngart …

Revisiting the Past

Colin’s Ghost asks, who really invented race charts?

Claire Novak, doing research in the National Museum of Racing, recently came across the work of Charles E. Van Loan, a popular sports writer of the early 20th century (and the man responsible for bringing Damon Runyon to the New York American). She shared a link to one of his long out-of-print books, “Old Man Curry: Race Track Stories,” a collection originally published in 1917, available through Project Gutenberg. It’s a quick summer read, packed with rich scenes from the backstretch and colorful characters — not to mention an introduction with laments that sound awfully familiar — and I enjoyed it, despite aspects disturbing to a reader of the 21st century. Be advised: some dialogue and descriptions are very much of the era.

Santa Anita is returning to dirt, announced Frank Stronach.

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?