05/18/2006 11:00PM

Letters to the editor

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Racing must move to embrace modern science

Steven Crist, in his April 22 column, "Tread lightly on Polytrack," advised extreme caution in the effort afoot in the racing industry to modernize our dirt surfaces. While Mr. Crist makes some legitimate points, and while his motivations are undeniably pure, he seems to lack a full grasp of the chronic degradation that has occurred over the past few decades in the regimen of training and racing Thoroughbreds in North America.

(As the owners of Tapeta Footings Inc. - which manufactures and installs synthetic racing surfaces - we advise all to please consider the source here.)

The current state of the game at some of racing's most prominent venues (small field sizes, trainers hobbled with injured stock, owners defecting, etc.) serves as a veritable clinic for the secular problems that plague our industry - problems that must be addressed if we are to remain viable in a world with proliferating gaming alternatives.

The two areas that stand out for scrutiny in the quest for solutions are the horses themselves and the tracks they are training and running over. The American breed is wickedly fast and very precocious, but, by almost every historical measure, the most unsound it has ever been. And with commercial considerations intractably behind the vast majority of breeding decisions, any thoughts of a return to the more robust, less fashionable racing stock of yesteryear are mere fantasy.

The state of our racing surfaces is a completely different issue, for while the breed has evolved dramatically - for better or worse - our tracks are stuck in the early 20th century. Very little has changed in the area of dirt-track composition and design. Modern technologies have been largely eschewed on this critical front, with some pointing to the single failure, four decades ago, of a well-intended but poorly designed and executed (Tartan) surface as a reason to take a "go-slow" approach. In fact, it would be impossible to go any slower than we have in the management of our surfaces, for we would then be in reverse mode and conducting race meets on dirt roads.

We need to break the mentality that the utilization of modern technology - coated surfaces, more efficient drainage systems, steeper banking on turns - is somehow akin to revolutionizing the game. Modernization is progress, not revolution. The benefits of taking pragmatic steps to reduce the current disconnect between the horse and the racing surface would be realized at all levels of the game, e.g., sounder horses making more starts, a reduction in catastrophic breakdowns, fewer scratches during wet weather, larger field sizes, increased handle, higher purses, lower takeouts, more viable horse ownership, etc.

At this very critical time for our great sport - with competition for the gambling dollar coming from all directions - we must embrace the very technology that will allow us to reverse some debilitating trends and stay in the fight. We must remember that when it comes to incorporating innovative technology in the greater world of sports, horse racing is playing catch-up.

On another front, we are very surprised to read that some bettors do not like synthetic surfaces because it deprives them of so-called advantages of betting on sloppy, muddy tracks, or tracks with a bias. That they put their own selfish interest above the safety of the horse and rider defies belief.

Michael Dickinson, Joan Wakefield
Tapeta Footings Inc.
North East, Md.

Synthetic tracks seen as detriment

This letter is meant to warn racing management that changing all dirt racing in California to synthetic surfaces is ill-advised. Such a change will alter the dynamics of handicapping.

It is unknown whether genealogy weighs on the outcome of racing on synthetic surfaces. Inherent speed, stamina, and class are but words if the racehorse, hating the footing, refuses to run upon it. Ninety-nine percent of all Thoroughbreds have never competed on a synthetic surface. There will be no past performances to study. Skimpy evidence from Turfway Park's Polytrack reveals two astonishments: (1) Winning race times, regardless of distance, are so slow as to suggest that the horses wore leg irons, and (2) the also-rans straggle home in clusters - 30 or more lengths behind the winner - like a pioneer caravan headed for California. The conclusion? Many Thoroughbreds dislike the footing and refuse to try. Take a peek of the early Polytrack record of Lawyer Ron, a racing star: two starts, two losses.

Synthetic surfaces in California will confer a huge betting edge to a privileged group: the trainers, jockeys, and employees working at a racetrack with a synthetic surface. Those who see a workout have an edge over those who read about it. Racing in California will become an insider's game.

Why? Whether a horse takes to the surface is the cardinal question. It will take several racing seasons to qualify the relationship of bloodlines to racing on an artificial surface. American breeders have spent years trying to develop "speed" in the breed. Polytrack, at least, is a tiring surface that does not favor the speed horse. Should we require Caruso to sing at the bottom of a well?

I pray to the gods of racing that the Kentucky Derby will never be contested on an artificial surface.

Merrill K. Albert
Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.

Chicago-area fans short-changed

It looks as though the majestic palace known as Arlington Park is carrying on the spring Hawthorne tradition of short fields and too many maiden races.

Races of six or fewer horses have been common during the first two weeks of the 2006 Arlington meeting. Even worse, with frequent late scratches, the cancellation of show and trifecta wagering has hampered the wagering patron's attempt to make a profit.

There are far too many maiden and cheap claiming races being run on a daily basis. To help ensure full fields, when is the Arlington racing secretary going to card daily turf racing for claiming horses? What is the Illinois Racing Board doing to help the racing public get full-quality fields on non-weekend days?

It is time for the racing board to step forward to maximize the state's betting revenue by requiring both Arlington Park and the National Jockey Club at Hawthorne to increase their field sizes - or forfeit their licenses to run inferior race meets next year and beyond.

Chicago Thoroughbred racing fans deserve better racing than is currently being offered.

Jim Lentz
Wheaton, Ill.