Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Surface Changes

Odds and Ends

After racing twice this year in blinkers, Lookin at Lucky will start without on Saturday; Devil May Care, who’s been training in blinkers, will start with. Horses that have gone blinkers-on or -off haven’t done well in the Derby, with Aptitude, second at 12-1 in 2000, the last such starter to even finish ITM. That few horses make equipment changes on Derby day surely explains part of the lack of impact, and those that do aren’t usually well-bet contenders. Atswhatimtalknbout, fourth in 2003, was the best supported in recent years, going to post at 9-1. Lookin at Lucky will have the added distinction of being the first favorite, since at least 1991, to start blinkers-on or -off in the Derby. A knock? Well, it’s not just Derby day equipment changes that haven’t done well. Blinkers-on or -off at any point during a Derby contender’s 3YO prep season hasn’t been a positive sign over the past couple decades. The exception is 1991 Derby winner Strike the Gold, who had blinkers removed in his second start as a 3-year-old.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas believes Dublin was unfairly portrayed as skittish after the colt attempted to bolt while galloping last Saturday upon seeing thousands of marathoners in the infield:

“The publicity on that is totally, totally wrong,” he lectured a member of the Churchill Downs notes team. “This horse is very manageable. But if you’re going to send 4,000 screaming marathon runners out of the tunnel, he’s going to take a look at that. My pony shied from that. The horse in front of him shied from that. He was the only one who got the publicity, [and] that’s ridiculous!”

Foolish Pleasure is concerned Dublin might shy again on Saturday.

Arkansas Derby winner Line of David will start on Saturday missing one thing found in every other runner’s record: A layoff line. The Lion Heart colt has been in training since he made his first start in November 2009. Combined with the new career-high Beyer speed figure he earned at Oaklawn, it seems likely the John Sadler trainee may have peaked last month. His final Derby work at Churchill certainly suggests as much.

The Louisville forecast calls for rain Saturday: Lane Gold has wet track Derby pointers, Steve Haskin recommends Stately Victor. The top Tomlinson — 463 — belongs to Noble’s Promise, who has yet to start over an off surface.

Andrew Beyer’s Derby exacta: Ice Box, Lookin at Lucky.

Following up on surface switches:

Interesting numbers from Dean of Pull the Pocket, who was inspired to do some data mining on 2009 synthetic-to-dirt/dirt-to-synthetic moves in JCapper after reading the post “Surface to Surface” earlier this month:

Going synthetic-to-dirt may indeed be an easier move, as measured by win percentage. It is more predictable, as evidenced by the lower average win mutuel and the post-time favorites percentage. But, as Dean pointed out to me when we talked about his findings, the JCapper data isn’t limited to horses making their first starts on either surface, it isn’t broken out by class (which doesn’t address the question of whether horses are more likely to move to a synthetic surface for increased purse money or black type, resulting in more negative performances), and there’s no way to account for trainer intentions (a poorly running horse may start on synthetic in “a last-ditch effort” to find something that will work for it).

Questions remain, but, “if you dig down, there are patterns that work,” said Dean. Just one example: Connections matter. According to the JCapper algorithm (which combines trainer and jockey stats), the win rate was 30.31% on dirt for horses with the highest-rated connections, 23.28% on synthetic.

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?

Synth to Dirt, No Problem

A little breakfast time research yields this nugget:

Of the 460 nominees to the Triple Crown, 61 have made the switch from a synthetic surface to a fast dirt track. Of those, 47 improved or replicated their synthetic form on dirt.

Details in this Google doc. Only horses who raced primarily on synthetics at the start of their careers and who switched from such a surface to a fast dirt track are included (so horses whose single dirt starts were over the Monmouth slop of the 2007 Breeders’ Cup are not represented). Also, I made no distinctions between synthetic surfaces and didn’t consider class or distance changes. Generally, results were marked positive (P) if a horse showed an improved BSF and/or finish position, negative (N) if the opposite, and consistent (C) if it ran +/- 3 BSF and/or showed similar placing.

The odds are good that the California synthetic surface form of Colonel John and Bob Black Jack will hold up at Churchill.

Related: Andrew Beyer rants:

But in the 3-year-old stakes races that precede the Kentucky Derby, the presence of synthetic tracks has not merely complicated the game. It has made rational handicapping judgments almost impossible.

Not really. Synthetics are different, but not inexplicable.