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A Fair and Balanced Cup
Horses who made their final preps on dirt and synthetic surfaces fared equally well in the eight main-track Breeders' Cup races this year, as opposed to the 0-for-43 collar that dirt horses took in the 2008 and 2009 editions over Pro-Ride at Santa Anita.
The chart below shows where each Cup starter made his final start before the Cup this year and last. Runners coming off dirt and synthetic races showed almost identical winning and in-the-money percentages in 2010, after a 2009 edition where dirt runners floundered badly:
These results confirm what many handicappers and horsemen intuitively feel and have learned repeatedly in the last five years: It's much easier for horses to transfer their form from synthetic to dirt surfaces than the other way around, much in the same way that grass races are frequently good preps for dirt races while a dirt race never seems to set up a grass horse for a peak performance on turf.
Especially with Santa Anita returning to dirt racing, Hollywood Park likely to close in the next few years, and no other American track even contemplating the installation of a synthetic surface, it appears that the main-track Breeders' Cup races will continue to be run on dirt for the foreseeable future. The results above suggest that is the fairest way to proceed.
--Update 11/11: Speaking of the return to dirt racing at Santa Anita, here is the text of a California Horse Racing Board press release about the work being done in anticipation of the Dec. 26th opening:
The Board waived the CHRB requirement for a synthetic surface at Santa Anita Park and authorized the installation of an all-natural main track composed of clay and various types of sand. This action followed weeks of discussions and meetings between CHRB Executive Director Kirk Breed and representatives of Santa Anita, the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC), and California Thoroughbred Trainers (CTT) to make certain the design and materials used in the new track were to everyone’s satisfaction and would provide a safe racing surface.
After Santa Anita President George Haines and Scott Daruty, representing Santa Anita’s parent company MI Developments, provided an overview of the project, Chairman Brackpool stated, “I have been following this almost on a daily basis as our staff has been working with you. There has been an extraordinary amount of detail. We have stressed a cooperative process, trying to get buy-ins from all concerned. I have letters from John Sadler representing the CTT and Bob Baffert representing the TOC indicating their support for this waiver and these plans. The emphasis all along has been safety, safety, safety.” These thoughts were echoed by CTT Executive Director Alan Balch, who said in all of his 40 years in the horse racing industry “I have never seen this degree of collaboration on a racing surface.” They all thanked the Santa Anita/MID project team and MID Chairman Frank Stronach for their cooperation and the openness of the process.
Haines said the demolition of the previous synthetic track had been completed over the last few weeks and, pending Board approval of the waiver, 50 trucks were standing by to begin bringing in decomposed granite for the new base. He said this “rock dust” would be “extremely compacted to form a concrete-like base,” installed to exact specifications for hardness, grade, and consistency using lasers, transponders, and GPS technology. After the base is set, they will bring in thousands of tons of clay, silt, and sands, mixed to specifications for the new surface. He said installation should be completed by December 6, giving horses nearly three weeks to train on the new surface before the December 26 start of the winter meet.
Daruty said maintenance of the new track would obviously be a top priority for management and they were spending nearly $1 million on new equipment, including a “precision, laser-guided grader to maintain the precise grade of the track.”
Pointing to this new equipment and the fact they had not gone with the least-expensive surface, he said “money did not enter into our considerations. The point was not to save money but to try to come up with a safe racetrack that could be used for a long, long time.”
Commissioner Derek suggested that because this will be a brand new racing surface and the first natural racing surface that many horses based in Southern California have ever been exposed to, it would be prudent for Santa Anita to hire an extra veterinarian to help conduct thorough pre-race examinations of all horses entered to run. Haines quickly agreed to the suggestion. The Board then voted on the waiver request and unanimously approved it (6-0).
It might make some sense to see how eastern based horses fared in other Breeder's Cups in CA on dirt. The poor showing by eastern based dirt horses over the last couple of years is being based solely on synthetic tracks favoring synthetic and turf horses, but I seem to recall at least one other CA Breeder's Cup where eastern based horses also disappointed badly. I think there is at least some evidence that it's easier to ship from west to east than vice versa. Either that or eastern based handicappers have been underrating CA horses for a long time.
Could there be any truth to the hypothesis that horses proven at elite levels on synthetic are more versatile than dirt horses proven at an equal level? So, when good synth horses move to dirt, they don't bomb the way the dirt horses did at the 2 Santa Anita Breeder's Cups? Looking at just the Cali contingent of synth horses, it wasn't just that Dakota Phone won the Dirt Mile but that Switch and Evening Jewel ran 2-3 in the Female Sprint, Smiling Tiger ran 3rd in the Sprint, and Zenyatta ran her excellent 2nd in the Classic. Why is it any more fair to ask them to go from synth to dirt than it is for the Eastern horses to have to go from dirt to synth? The fact the Cali horses had more success in their endeavor might simply reflect that they are more versatile horses? As a counter to this argument, I think the Cali contingent benefitted from having their Oak Tree preps over Hollywood Park's Cushion Track rather than Santa Anita's Pro-Ride. Hollywood Park's Cushion Track is not dirt, but it is a heck of alot closer to dirt than Pro-Ride. When the 07' Oak Tree preps were run at Santa Anita over its weird version of Cushion Track, the Cali contingent fared poorly at Monmouth; the only Cali horse to run well on dirt was Hystericalady, and she was coming off a sub-standard race on Santa Anita's synthetic and would prove to be better on dirt than synthetic by the time her career was over. Had the 08' and 09' Breeder's Cup been run at Hollywood Park, I think the Eastern dirt horses would have fared better than they did at Santa Anita. My tentative conclusions: Top level synth horses may be more versatile than top level dirt horses, and thus can transfer their form across surfaces better. As a result of this and/or something inherent with the surfaces, it does seem easier to move from synth to dirt than dirt to synth. Eastern, particularly New York horses, struggled when the Breeder's Cup was at Santa Anita in 93' and 03', pre-synth. Home track horses typically have an advantage, as the Kentucky horses did this year, and invaders are typically disadvantaged. So, it's possible the Eastern horses would have struggled at Santa Anita in 08' and 09' even if there had been dirt instead of synth. With this said, Eastern horses did well at the 97' Hollywood Park BC. I do think Eastern dirt horses were particularly disadvantaged with the 08' and 09' BC being run over Pro-Ride, a synthetic further away from dirt than a synthetic like Hollywood's Cushion Track. There are synthetic tracks that have proven to be not only safe, but fair, and also deliver fewer cancellations. I don't hear much controversy with Arlington, Woodbine, Hollywood Park, Turfway, or Presque Isle. Del Mar and Keeneland's Polytrack appear to be the most controversial synthetic tracks left, but both tracks hold boutique meets and thus don't affect bettors for many days.
Steve - Those "purists" who insist on naming Blame HOTY by a nose over the overwhelming popular hero Zenyatta deserve the continued decline in the popularity of horse racing. - Dan Baedeker
Though it can't be argued that dirt tracks have their differences in regards to composition and maintenance practices, the one critical factor that they all share in common is that they are 'granular' in nature. That is, they will, at some point, crumble and break away underneath a horse's thrusting hoof. Synthetic surface materials were originally and specifically designed to mimic turf courses. The following is a good description of a synthetic surface as described at the Dundalk (Dundalk Stadium, Ire) race track website: The going description for an All Weather Track is described as Standard. This equates to the Good side of Good to Firm on Polytrack. The polytrack surface, which has the same characteristics as turf, provides consistency on which horses can perform at their maximum ability. Although polytrack can be manipulated to reflect Good to Soft, Good or Good to Firm ground, the Jockey Club directive for going on polytrack is a mixture of Good to Firm and Good which equates to Standard. This is achieved by firstly cultivating (power harrowing) the polytrack to a depth of 100mm with the next procedure being a pass with a gallop master (spiral rollers) which replenishes the surface. Sounds like a turf course to me, and, as we can all agree (I think) turf and dirt racing are two distinctly different endeavors.
I agree the above charts are a "fair and balanced" representation of the results of the last two Breeders' Cups, but like the television network that uses the same description for their coverage, how you interpret those results can easily be ideologically bent. Take away the color-coding of the prep races, and analyze the geography of the last two years and the results are not out of line with previous Cups in California or Kentucky. The quality of the prep races for the original main track Cup races also varies greatly year-to-year. In 2009 the quality of the racing in the main line Breeders' Cup divisions in New York was just not very good. How else can you explain a 3-year-old filly winning the Woodward and routinely trouncing the Belmont and Derby winners? With a chilling effect already in place, why would New York owners pay the money to ship mediocre horses across the country? The results were far fewer bullets in the guns of Eastern stables at Oak Tree last year. This year, note the difference in quality of the major preps for the oldest Cup races. None of the Goodwood horses made the Classic (Dakota Phone went in the Dirt Mile). Most of the Gold Cup horses did go on to the Classic. The Alcibiades was won by a filly who the next day was knocked out with injury. The previous year it was a stronger race that produced the eventual champion. Quick...name the Champagne winner in 2009. Now ask yourself if Uncle Mo would have had any trouble winning over Vale of York had he been born a year sooner? [You raise good points but I think the 2-year-old results of 2009 speak to the idea that most good dirt horses ran poorly over Pro-Ride -- unless you honestly think that Eskendereya and Devil May Care were both the 12th-best horses in their BC Juvenile fields. -SC] There is potential folly in trying to declare trends when working with fewer than a dozen items which happen to correspond to living, breathing creatures who can't speak. Put it this way: Until 2003 Europeans supposedly couldn't win Cup races in warm climates, and until Goldikova Saturday afternoon, this was a dreadful year for the Europeans. Two races later, two horses turned the weekend from a shutout to another great triumph for foreign participation. I don't think the failures of Careless Jewel, Gayego, Summer Bird or Curlin can be so easily held up as examples that synthetic tracks are unfair to dirt horses.
Playing devil's advocate the results of 16 races don't exactly make a statistically valid study. Now that SA is going dirt / slop. Maybe you should track horses going from SA to HOL... Sorry to be so skeptical. Open my eyes with a real study. I'm not so stubborn that I can't be budged by statistically valid facts. Thanks.
Jimbo (from prior blogpost): one easy way to track your bets is using youbet (I'm sure the other online wagering sites have similar features) which gives you ROI by distance of race, surface, track, class of race, jockey, trainer, etc. It's effortless and very useful. You can even print out a won/loss for the year in the event the Feds decide to challenge your return. Nick Briglia, I'm glad the synthetic era seems to be drawing to a close too but I'd suggest this era will be remembered negatively more for the medication violations and incidents like the disgraceful conduct of the Life at Ten connections on Saturday than the carpet. Some horses despise the synthetics, some love them, but any bettor with a clue should've realized that early on. Still relishing Zenyatta's rout of Quality Road and Lookin' at Lucky on Saturday..I had her in the doubles with Unrivaled Belle and Midge, ka-ching, oh wait. Who's that other horse? Typical of racing, imagine what people would be saying about her if Blame scratched with a fever the day before? I do think that if Kent D. is criticized for moving too soon on Real Quiet in the '98 Derby (and he still is, based on the response to a recent Watchmaker post), Smith can and probably will forever be criticized for moving too late with Zenyatta. It may be harsh but it's true. When you lose a 10 furlong race by 3 inches with a horse closing like a rocket, it's going to happen. Smith can take the heat. Finally, I don't really understand why everyone cares so much about HOTY, but Blame should get it.
The hit of the Cup, after Zenyatta, was the 50 cent minimums on the triples, P3's and P4's. Can't say enough how much they improved the day wagering-wise. I would love for NYRA and Churchill to permanently adopt them--they'd likely raise handle because people would bet more combos, cash more tickets, and bet more back into the game.
There is a mistake in your chart. Paddy O'Prado (5th in classic) prepped on the Belmont Turf [Thanks, fixed and updated. -SC]
Which 6 yr old ran the fastest BC Classic Beyer??? Andy Beyer downplayed the 111 rating this year by the Queen but let's keep the Math in line. Steve, what is the fastest Beyer by a 6 yr old in the Classic??? I don't know. Which horse as a 6 year old ran the best Classic in History? Let's compare Apples to Apples... [No 6-year-old has won the Classic. The oldest winners are the seven 5-year-olds who have won the race: Black Tie Affair (who received a Beyer of 114), Arcangues (114), Cigar (117), Alphabet Soup (115), Pleasantly Perfect (119), Saint Liam (112) and Zenyatta (112). The 6-year-olds who have run second or third in the Classic, and their Beyers, are Ibn Bey (114), Cigar (114), Swain (114), Budroyale (115), Pleasantly Perfect (111), Perfect Drift (110) and Zenyatta (111). So all three of the Classic winners at five who tried to repeat lost the race as 6-year-olds -- Cigar, Pleasantly Perfect and Zenyatta. -SC]