06/20/2008 12:46AM

Fun With Penetrometers


Ever wonder just how "yielding" a turf course really was, especially when the time of the race was fast? American grass courses are rated pretty crudely and sometimes arbitrarily, with a track superintendent making a ballpark guess based on a look at the course and a guess at how hard it rained last night. Other countries try harder, it seems, based on this news release from New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing Inc.:

A new system of grading track conditions is about to go on trial in New Zealand. The new system will run from mid June to the end of September and if supported by the Industry will remain in place from that date.

New Zealand currently employs five track grades ranging from Fast to Heavy. Each of these grades is aligned to a band of penetrometer readings – for example Good going is the result of an average penetrometer reading of 2.1 to 2.5 inclusive. The penetrometer number is an average of 30 readings from around the track. Currently this average reading is also released when the track rating is declared.
When soil conditions change between the time readings are taken and when races are run, Punters, Trainers and Riders can be incorrectly placing too much emphasis on a precise penetrometer number. The very wide bands of the present track condition grades make it difficult to indicate where a track is likely to shift to given weather conditions at the time readings are taken. Narrower bands would help racecourse managers give Punters, Trainers and Riders a better perception of the track condition.

New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing (NZTR) has developed the new 11-scale system, which has been endorsed by Club and Industry representatives and Turftech (the original developers of the Penetrometer system):

Scale/Rating/Penetrometer Band/Comment
1/Fast/0.5 – 1.9/A dry hard track
2/Good/2.0 – 2.2/A firm track
3/Good/2.3 – 2.5/Ideal track with some give
4/Dead/2.6 – 2.8/Track with give better side of Genuine Dead
5/Dead/2.9 – 3.2/Genuine Dead
6/Dead/3.3 – 3.5/Significant amount of give, worse side of Genuine Dead
7/Slow/3.6 – 3.8/A mildly rain affected track, better side of Genuine Slow
8/Slow/3.9 – 4.2/Genuine Slow
9/Slow/4.3 – 4.5/Rain affected, worse side of Genuine Slow
10/Heavy/4.6 – 5.5/Genuine Heavy
11/Heavy/5.6+/Very soft and wet, heaviest category

This new rating scale aims to more accurately reflect the track rating and provide more consistency. Each step in the scale is either a 0.4 or 0.3 spread of penetrometer readings. Turftech advised NZTR that there is no reason for the penetrometer bands to be exactly the same width for each rating category. As such, the spread for ‘Genuine Dead’ and ‘Genuine 2 Slow’ categories is 0.4 as against 0.3 for all other categories except ‘Fast’ which has always been an anomaly as the first category.

By adopting a different bandwidth for ‘Genuine Dead’ and ‘Genuine Slow’ it retains the cut off point for ‘Good’ at 2.5, ‘Dead’ at 3.5 and ‘Slow’ at 4.5, which is what Punters are accustomed to. The consequence of bringing these three ratings into the mix and the need to have two heavy categories means that the New Zealand scale will have 11 categories rather than the 10 used in Australia. Under this new scale the actual Penetrometer number will not be released, only the rating category and associated scale – for example ‘Dead 6.’

The description will also be published to help with the understanding of the new track rating scale, for example ‘Dead 6: Significant amount of give, worse side of Genuine Dead.’ During the trial period a horse’s form sheet will continue to reflect its performance on the five scales – Fast, Good, Dead, Slow and Heavy tracks - not be broken down to the 11-scale system. These proposed rating categories would not only more accurately reflect the track rating in New Zealand but also provide both Australian and New Zealand wagering customers a better indication of the predicted track conditions.

In all cases once the first race is run the time of the races becomes the key determinant of the track condition on the day.

That final sentence is almost the most remarkable one. Only once in a blue moon is an American grass course upgraded when it's clear from the times of the races that the initial guess was a bad one.

--As for Thursday's Congressional hearing:
*Column here: Download Column061908.doc
*Webcast archive and prepared statements: Click here