“A bias is unfair to horsemen who are powerless to meet such challenges and to bettors who often are forced to guess which horse(s) will be sent to the lead at all costs, badly skewing race dynamics and taking horses out of their best game...
“Some jockeys are quick to recognize a bias, [some just the opposite]. The point, however, is that horses should determine the outcome of races, not track superintendents…”
The italicized precede, edited for brevity and context, first appeared in this space October 19. The racetrack was Belmont Park, where too many races on too many fall racing days were dominated by front-end speed horses racing on or closest to the rail.
The description, however, easily could have been referring to Santa Anita Park on Breeders’ Cup weekend.
At the Great Race Place, the California sunshine helps to keep the racing surface very dry and very fast, the winter rainy season notwithstanding.
It’s bad enough when post positions on the one-mile main track and 7-furlong turf course lend themselves readily to a logistical bias. Outside posts in two-turn dirt races, for example, are extremely difficult to overcome. For those horses and their connections, call it the un-luck of the draw.
But when an extreme speed-favoring surface is in play, the task of outside runners becomes doubly tough to overcome. Post positions are what they are, an unlucky fact of life for some that’s apparent as soon as the overnight comes out.
A track bias, especially one with a predisposition to inside-speed, is correctable--not always easily, but certainly do-able. Consequently, there certainly were no good excuses for the condition of the main track for Breeders’ Cup 30, especially Friday’s.
The NBC Sports Network broadcast team discussed the fact that jockeys were complaining about the dry kick-back. It went beyond stinging, they said. “It hurts,” said one, adding that the chances of the trailing horses were being severely compromised.
As a practitioner who makes the game go, you choose a Breeders’ Cup race for your good horse(s) in January and you plan a racing schedule working backward from the first weekend in November.
So you manage your horses, train them, prep them against other top class horses hoping for optimal results from minimal effort if possible, then you train your horse some more, careful not to go over the top of peak condition.
On race day, you load your best mid-race mover or late runner into the starting gate for a race in which a lively pace, especially at Santa Anita, is almost guaranteed, and your horse is beaten even before the latch is sprung.
How is that fair to the owners and trainers who make and mares and the horses go and who have worked diligently to get their animals right on the day only to see it become an Abbott and Costello comedy routine: “They’re off. You lose.”
And it’s not like anyone would seriously consider how this affects the horseplayer whose betting dollars pay for all this. It’s not like one is being born every minute anymore, although the player is often treated that way.
Surely, there must have been some evidence of the stinging nature of the kickback in, say, the 48 hours leading up to the event.
Why didn’t somebody, a racing official, exercise rider, jockey, trainer say something to somebody about the condition of the surface?
And why wasn’t the betting public, those who didn’t have Friday afternoon free and could tune into the broadcast, informed via other forms of media? Twitter was all abuzz Friday night, but only after serious consequences had become apparent.
The Breeders’ Cup is a monumental betting event not for the faint of heart or those handicappers who think they can get away with a quick perusal of a set of past performances before they plunk down their cash.
For any serious fan or bettor, it’s a lot of hard work jammed into a relatively short period of time. Not that any consideration is given to that part of the process, either.
I never have made this known publicly but one reason Breeders’ Cup races are drawn a day earlier could be due to a serious discussion I had with a Breeders’ Cup official re the plight of the handicapping horseplayer. The official was empathetic and informed those above his pay grade that if bettors had an extra day to study past performances, betting handle might increase.
An aside: Since almost all practitioners are virtually certain they will run after the final round of preps are run a fortnight before the event, maybe the pre-entry stage could be moved back to Monday instead of Wednesday, allowing for two extra days of research. Is there an obvious reason why this cannot be?
Following Friday’s races, the Twittersphere was abuzz with comments and pictures about the bias and the heavy maintenance to correct the situation. According to a representative from the Horseplayers Association of North America, Breeders’ Cup officials weren’t pleased and asked Santa Anita to put on a full court press to slow down the stinging main track for Saturday’s races.
Parenthetically, no mention was made whether that included turning up the water sprinklers on the rock hard turf course that was producing record fractions all weekend. If this was an example of further honing the home track advantage, someone forgot to tell the Europeans.
As a result of the heavy maintenance, the surface was better on Saturday and Sunday, giving non-speed horses a little better chance.
Subsequently, HANA rightfully chided Santa Anita and/or Breeders’ Cup officials for not informing anyone interested in betting their money that measures had been taken to correct the problem, what they were, and that the track condition would be a little more honest.
As one prominent HANA member stated in a widely circulated e-mail after the problem was addressed, “fairness to gamblers outweighs any potential embarrassment… from too much kick-back/sandblasting.”
Atmospherics aside, the principles of solving the problem of track bias are fairly straightforward: Add a lot more water, harrow a little deeper, more uniformly.
And as far as keeping bettors informed about the surface over which their betting choices will race, whether it be Santa Anita, Belmont Park, or Wherever Downs, next time see if Keeneland will lend you a page from their Polycapping handbook.
FOR THE RECORD, A CORRECTION
Due to a miscommunication, my post-Breeders’ Cup ballot is incorrect in the polling section on the NTRA website. Below is my final ballot as it was intended to be tallied. What appears in its place is a poll that currently ranks this year’s 3-year-olds. Mea culpa to all for any inconvenience.
(The following cut and pasted below was the original confirmation received from NTRA)
Voter: John Pricci
Your Thoroughbred Poll vote was received at Nov 4, 2013 9:18 AM.
Your votes are shown below:
TOP THOROUGHBRED POLL
1. Wise Dan
2. Mucho Macho Man
3. Will Take Charge
4. Groupie Doll
6. Secret Circle
7. Game On Dude
8. Princess Of Sylmar
9. Royal Delta