JC / Railbird


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?

After →