08/13/2010 4:41PM

Rage Against the Machine


Okay, and apologies for the protracted absence. No, I was not lounging on a beach near Seagrove, or Powerhouse Park. Del Mar is hard work, and not for the lazy. I mean, there’s all those oceanfront gatherings, and just the other night I had to force myself to watch Jack Van Berg do the boogaloo at the Gregson Foundation dinner honoring him and his pal, Ron McAnally, then suffer through an impromptu piano set by Burt Bacharach. Say a little prayer, indeed.

The fault, in fact, falls squarely on my slow absorption of a new blogging software here at DRF central. I reacted as if someone had rearranged all the furniture in the middle of the night, and there I was banging into table edges and umbrella stands for the next two weeks, complaining like a confused and ungrateful child. It seemed too much, though, to have to learn yet again another way in which to impart a few simple thoughts, and the process tripped a memory switch that led me back through the array of mechanical devices that ended here, at the daunting doorstep of Drupal, an “open source content management platform.”  

In the beginning, there was my grandfather’s Underwood #5, circa 1926, with its round, steel-rimmed keys and its carriage that would huff up and down, like the old Dallas Cowboys offensive line, every time an upper case character was called for. Next, and clearly smuggled from my father’s office, came an art-moderne Smith-Corona, in soft teal, followed in short order by a travel Olympia portable (full metal, made it to Europe and back), and then a worthless, plastic Olivetti.

The last manuals I touched on a regular basis were a fleet of pack-mule Royals spread around the old Racing Form offices in L.A. You could beat down a door with one of those and not loose so much as a tab setting. I broke my electronic cherry with the miraculous IBM Selectric, that of the interchangeable type-face balls with a lightning fast return that could have crushed a finger. There was a brief flirtation with the contraption they called the word processor -- an angry, tempermental machine -- and then came the PC, in all its glory. Since then, it’s all been about the programs. The fingers of the left hand still rest on ASDF.

(For those who think such memories are indulgent, like Swan with his friggin’ cookie, take a look at this site and tell me if the tools of the trade, any trade, don’t have at least some  significance -- http://www.fosterkamer.com/post/725759353/famous-writers-and-their-typewriters.)

All this, quite by accident, is a way to address the latest man-made crisis in California racing, which once again has been boxed into a corner by the frustrating technology of synthetic racetracks.

It was bad enough, last weekend, when an early-morning hiccup with Del Mar’s Polytrack mix nearly cost fans a chance to see Zenyatta run. And do not think for a minute that John Shirreffs would not have pulled the plug if track supe Rich Tedesco hadn’t yanked a rabbit out of his harrows. 

No one really knows what to think from week to week, which is no way to run an airline. A trainer that I respect and trust -- I guess that's the same thing -- pulled me up a few days ago in the Del Mar backstretch parking lot to tell me how good the synthetic main track had been that morning. He descibed the surface that greeted his early-rising horses in glowing terms. It was soft. It was even. It was bouncy, like a sponge. Gone were the strips and patches where the various elements -- fiber, wax, rubber and sand -- had failed to hold together. He beamed with the delight of a kid who, after making do with nothing but brown rice and beets, was finally given a bowl of vanilla ice cream.  “Now, if they can only keep it that way all the time," he said. How long, I asked, did the utopian surface last? He sighed. "Yeah, later on it started to break up a little. But only a little.”

Now the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita has been placed in jeopardy -- again, after being rescued from the whims of Frank Stronach -- this time by questions surrounding the condition of the Pro-Ride surface that underwent renovations and repairs earlier this month. Like a blindfolded committee trying to describe an elephant, or build a giraffe, the various, legitimate interests – owners, trainers, jockeys, horseplayers, and management – each seem to have a piece of the puzzle, but nothing close to the total picture.

And so the game dangles, awaiting a study from synthetics expert Mick Peterson, followed by interpretation from the laymen of the California Horse Racing Board, under pressure from all sides, to find out what’s next. The technology of engineered racetracks makes sense, and the goal is to find that consistent, hard-working surface equivalent of those old pack-mule Royals. But so far all we’ve seen is a series of disposable Olivettis.


BeachIva18 More than 1 year ago
If you are in uncomfortable position and have no cash to go out from that, you would have to take the credit loans. Because it will aid you definitely. I get small business loan every time I need and feel fine just because of it.
monty More than 1 year ago
Santa Anita is going back to "dirt" ! They are spending millions to do it, and for the most part, I think this endeavor will please most of us, at least the east coast owners & trainers. Maybe we can get their top contenders to come out here a little bit more for some real "competition" ! As far as "Zenyatta" the wonder horse is concerned, she is even better/faster on real dirt, than polytrak, so beware, or just ask the "Oaklawn" folks. So, lookout Churchill Downs, and all of you east coast Zenyatta doubters, she's coming your way soon !
Bob Bright More than 1 year ago
Frank Stronach is the poster boy for why the sport dangles. The horse racing brain trust is a massive conflict of interest.
Goldhybrid More than 1 year ago
Speaking of Woodbine, is it taboo to mention that Stronach has horses at Woodbine? Why does he race there if he's against synthetics? Does he just race on the turf? Why no journalistic investigation?
Blackseabass More than 1 year ago
Attaboy Jay , mucho concern for your buddies the owners and trainers . Stronach the bettors . Nobody mentions the raise in take-out until its a done deal? The day that bill passes is my last day. I'm sure Zetcher needs a raise. Stronach the owners. Zetcher the trainers and @#$%^&* the state. BTW stronach the form and stronach the authors too. I'll be gone fishing. Hope to see you in the unemployment line or you better break out your trowel and mud mixer.
Del More than 1 year ago
I think California racing, with synthetic, is a brand which stands apart from generic dirt tracks. It's the greatest racing in the world. Why? Because synthetic allows the trainer to hand work his horses and to do so with frequency that is absent at dirt tracks. There is no greater service to the handicapper than providing regular and honest works. At dirt tracks, there are "breezing works". What the hell is that? What does a horse player learn from breezing works? You can hardly conclude anything from breezes. Another thing that makes the synthetic tracks great is they simulate turf. There is more strategy involved. Closers have a chance. It's not primarily speed like you find at dirt tracks. Theres' more suspense. If I wanted to see speed versus speed, I might as well bet quarter horses. And I'm not putting down great horses and people who operate on dirt. I'm saying there should be alternative.
Curt V. More than 1 year ago
Jay H., Welcome back to the civilized world..I guess Stronach ain't that much of a Stronacher any more.. Thank God, somebody had the sense to overturn that fiasco out West.........That's enough w/the experiments OKAY !!!!!!!!!
Ken Wiener More than 1 year ago
I wonder why the synthetic surface at Woodbine in Toronto has worked so well. Is the hot weather in California that much of a complication?
zinn21 More than 1 year ago
Yesterday at Del Mar a horrific breakdown occurred in deep stretch when the horse, Fantasy Free, took a bad step and went down in front of a packed grandstand. Clearly synthetic surfaces are not the total answer and cannot prevent all catastrophic breakdowns. It's time we put to use technology, currently available, to identify the source of virtually all catastrophic breakdowns-the bone.. I would like to see the CHRB initiate a pilot program using the latest technology to scan horses after entry and prior to racing for bone structural soundness. If a horse shows a bone micro fracture level above a healthy standard the horse is scratched placed on a vets list until he scans normal. Additionally let's order all track vets to disclose to the Stewards any bone or soft tissue injury that could potentially compromise any horse's ability to complete a race sound of limb if entered. Let's see how many in a controlled study along with Vet disclosure experience a catastrophic breakdown in a race over a period of time..
binky mcfadden More than 1 year ago
Gee whiz. It must be a coincidence that Del Mar which has the low tech version of Polytrack has problems. It must be coincidence that SA where Stronach doesn't want synthetic so he can have the BC permanently doesn't spend the money to maintain the surface properly. It must be coincidence that Arlington, Keeneland, Woodbine, Turfway, Presque Isle, and even GG are not screaming about problems with the synthetic. Gee whiz, it has nothing to do with self-interest and SoCal politics does it? The problem with racing is not the racing surfaces, it is the schmucks running the show. Synthetic vs. Dirt is a self-serving distraction and topic for the media to exploit.