JC / Railbird

Track Records

Saturday Notes

Oaklawn Park opens today. Trainer Larry Jones, refreshed by semi-retirement and recovered from aluminum poisoning, is back. So is Lady Giacamo, one of the first winners for her sire Giacomo and one of the first additions to my juvenile watchlist last year. After going 3-for-3 at Lone Star early in the summer, the filly was brought to Del Mar, where she didn’t race, and returned to the work tab at Remington in November. The six-furlong Dixie Belle Stakes will be her first start since winning the TTA Sales Futurity last June.

Square Eddie, returned to training after a year at stud, set a track record of 1:13.11 for 6 1/2 furlongs winning at Santa Anita on Friday. It’s just the latest record set over the new dirt track, prompting Brad Free to wonder, “when horses run as fast as they have been running this winter at Santa Anita, one has to ask again — at what expense?” I very much hope not at the expense of aggravating the physical issues that sent Square Eddie to the shed. “He had a high suspensory strain and I’ll be very interested to see how he looks in the morning — if he’s knocked out or body-sore,” said trainer Doug O’Neill after. “Hopefully we’ll find an empty feed tub and a bright, happy horse.”

The chipmunks are attacking! How could they not, when provoked like this? According to Santa Anita executive Scott Daruty, handle on Santa Anita was up 5% on the first official day of the horseplayers’ boycott, not down more than 15%. Numbers from the CHRIMS database — numbers not publicly available or reported by Equibase, DRF, or the California stewards, and therefore unverifiable — say so. I’m not a member of HANA, and even though I’ve bet less than $20 on Santa Anita since the meet started, I’m not boycotting. (Short fields dominated by speedballs and favorites bore me.) I’m an observer, and my interests lie in having access to accurate numbers and trying to understand what those numbers mean. If the track handle numbers reported on charts and treated as standard by every trade publication (including the one Daruty is speaking through) are inaccurate, then we have a bigger problem than trying to determine whether Thursday’s Santa Anita handle was up or down — the quality of handle data, as well as all reportage based on it, is compromised.

Speed Up, Handle Down

So, was the horseplayers’ boycott a success before it even began? I was among those who thought that anticipation for the first day of racing at Santa Anita in eight months and pent-up dirt demand would lead to a surge in opening day handle. That’s not what happened. From every angle (opening day last year, the last opening day on Sunday, the last opening day with a dirt track), handle was down across the board. Compared to 2009, attendance was off 4% (from 35,292 to 34,268), on-track handle down 15% (from $4,531,236 to $3,851,594) and total handle down 21.5% (from $14,913,953 to $11,707,276). Several factors surely affected the numbers: The track ran nine races this year, 10 in 2009; all the turf races were moved to the main track; there was no handle from now-closed NYC OTB; rain in California and snow on the East Coast may have kept some bettors away. But it also seems likely that a notable percentage of players held back bets, whether to protest the takeout increase or to watch how the reconstructed surface performed.

Santa Anita gave a brave spin to the day’s numbers, issuing a press release in which track president George Haines said, “I think it’s safe to say that we again demonstrated in a very profound way that our fans will continue to support Santa Anita in a big way on our big days. We’re very hopeful we can build on the momentum we generated today and carry it through the entire meet.” That might be difficult, if there are too many cards like Wednesday’s nine-race 61-horse line-up ahead. For comparison, Tampa drew 100+.

The new track looked like the Santa Anita dirt of old on Sunday, with California speed back in style and favorites winning four of nine races (and finishing in the money in eight of nine). “Southern California racing has been a soap opera the past few years,” writes Jay Privman. “Sunday made it feel even more so, as if the past three years at Santa Anita, under a controversial synthetic surface, had merely been a dream.” Trainer Bob Baffert, who might be more inclined to call the past three years a nightmare, was in the winner’s circle after the fourth race, posing next to a freakishly fast 2-year-old named The Factor. “If he’d have lost today, I would have quit training,” said Baffert. Going gate-to-wire, as did the winners of all three six furlong races on the card, The Factor set a new track record of 1:06.98 for the distance while winning a maiden special by 8 1/4 lengths as the 3-2 favorite, his time good for a Beyer speed figure of 102. Switch, the first of trainer John Sadler’s three stakes winners on the day, bested the stakes time of 1:20.45 posted by Mamselle Bebette in 1993 by winning the G1 La Brea Stakes in 1:20.33. Twirling Candy, finishing a nose in front of Smiling Tiger, broke the track record of 1:20 for seven furlongs set by Spectacular Bid in 1980 by winning the G1 Malibu Stakes in 1:19.70. That the Bid’s record was in danger was anticipated early in the day, and not with much joy. “I kind of have a problem with that,” said one of the house handicappers on the track’s feed, talking about Santa Anita’s decision to restore the old dirt track records, ignoring the differences in the surfaces and the synthetic interlude, and I kind of agreed. Twirling Candy is no Spectacular Bid, even if he — like Sir Beaufort winner Sidney’s Candy — is now an Omnisurface Star.

1:45 PM Addendum: Jay Hovdey posts re: Sunday’s lickety-splits: “Meanwhile, up in his booth at the top of the stretch, track superintendent Rich Tedesco was banging his head against the desktop, knowing full well that too fast is just plain too fast when it comes to protecting the frail infrastructure of the Thoroughbred racehorse from his own natural instincts to flee. He also knows that horses like Spectacular Bid don’t come along every 30 years.”

About that Record

Not to take anything away from Presious Passion, who was a most visually impressive repeat winner of the United Nations Handicap at Monmouth on Saturday, but I suspect it’s wrong to chalk up his final time of 2:10.97 as a new course record. Let’s go to the fractions …

In 2008, Presious Passion sprang an upset in the United Nations going wire to wire. On that day, he went :24.44, :49.16, 1:14.31, 1:38.76, and 2:02, finishing in 2:13.88, yielding splits of :24.72, :25.25, :24.45, :23.24, and :11.8.

On Saturday, Presious Passion again went wire to wire (opening up lengths early), going — according to official time — :19.80, :45.20, 1:09.81, 1:34.67, and 1:59.07, finishing in 2:10.97, a time that, if it stands, knocks nearly two seconds off the course record set by Balto Star in 2003. Those fractions yield splits of :25.4, :24.61, :24.86, :24.4, and :11.9. Presious Passion ran almost the same race as he did in 2008, but for that freaky fast first quarter.

Could there have been a timer error?

Curious, I timed the first quarter of the United Nations repeatedly this morning (using this video and a stopwatch), coming up with :22.8, :22.6, :22.5, and :22.6. Still fast, but not record-defying, and more in line with both earlier turf races on the card and Presious Passion’s splits for the rest of the race. Assuming :22.6 or so is correct and that the following fractions are similarly off, that means Presious Passion finished the United Nations in a time more like 2:13.7 — respectable, but no record.

Addendum: Wondering about records on the turf, I looked up the current North American record holder for 1 3/8 miles, With Approval, who set not only a stakes record, but a world record, of 2:10.26 for the distance in the Bowling Green Handicap at Belmont Park on June 17, 1990. While impressive, the New York Times did report, “[the time] deserves a footnote: Belmont’s are the only turf courses in the country where 11-furlong races are run around two, rather than three, turns. Cougar’s record of 2:11 in the 1972 Century Handicap at Hollywood was around three turns.”

Following up on a couple tweets: o_crunk points out a new turf course was installed in 2006. Since, several records have fallen, the clocks may be suspect, and credit must be given to English Channel, who set the 11-furlong turf record in the new era after running the 2007 United Nations in 2:12.89. Also of interest: Over on PaceAdvantage, a poster says the run-up is 64 feet. That’s all helpful info, especially regarding where the timer starts.

Mystery solved? And the record holds: Steve Crist posts tonight that Presious Passion’s first quarter was :22.20 and lists the rest of the fractions unchanged. So, he was flying early and late. Monmouth expert o_crunk wasn’t kidding about the turf course being speed favoring.

One last thing: BSF for the United Nations, 106 (Form Blog).