Wednesday, 16 December 2009

In Case You Still Have A Christmas Wish Open...

… last week saw the arrival of the latest installment of thoroughbred racing's only PC game franchise of notice, Starters Orders 4.

Developed by Mark Loveday's Strategic Designs, Starters Orders is the only series holding up the torch for a sport that, if you get a grip on its complexity, is really perfectly suited for the PC sports manager genre. Yet there have been few contenders, and most of them were just plain bad.

I've played the original Starters Orders; played SO Pro; edited and played SO 2 Deluxe (the version including Aussie and US datasets). I never really played SO3 because I was one of a group of customers on whose PCs SO 3 didn't work (the demo worked, though, so I know what features were added).

New features for SO 4 include a revamped graphics engine, a new Irish dataset (three actually: flat, jump, both). More fundamentally, the Australian and US data sets are finally integrated in the game itself (no longer as an add-on). There is also a multitude of minor new features, such as night racing, added racedays and improved jockey AI.
On the negative side, most of the race naming and scheduling flaws introduced in SO 2 or earlier are still around, and even though the game adds a so-called “schedule editor” feature, the latter is of little practical use. Hence, actual editing still has to be done using the enormously helpful SO Decrypter created by Strategic Designs forum member Outbackstables (the Decrypter can be found here).

After about 8 hours of intense testing (unbelievable what hardships I'm willing to endure for the sake of this blog :-)), it's still too early to rate the detail changes; but it can be said that the Starters Orders franchise continues to step in the right direction, and maintains its traditional strenghts, which are complexity and realism for both player- and CPU-campaigned horses.
While this is (even in the US and Aussie datasets) unmistakably a British game (f.e., Claiming races continue to be run under UK rules in every dataset), there is some progress on the International front. Most notably, the game finally adds track conditions for dirt tracks.

Sidenote: No news about the only other racing simulations which can be labeled good: Action Games' Hooves of Thunder / Quarter Pole series, which has not seen a new edition since 2002. Those games had fundamental flaws resulting from very poor campaigning patterns of the CPU-controlled horses, but between such extras as a collection of racing artwork, racing jokes and using the voices of real-life Mid-Atlantic track announcers for its tracks, HoT/QPP emanated an air of true dedication to the subject, which is not often found in PC games in general. And after all, it had the right flaws, such presented by actual difficulties, not sloppy design and a rushed release (customers of EA Sports FIFA games in which snowfall was as likely in December in Trondheim as it was in Florence in June or NBA games with a completely wrong salary cap system will know what I mean).

P.S. Nope, I'm not getting any perks for this post.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Things That Racing Fans Can Learn From Cycling

After already missing out on the Arc weekend because of my diploma work, I’ll also be unable to follow the upcoming Breeders’ Cup live. Ironically, the reason is that I’ll be in North America (that is, on a week-long trip to NYC which more likely than not won’t include a trip to Aqueduct). So no handicapping or strong interest from my side, although I will root against Zenyatta in the Classic. She may have a good chance (not too much to overcome there anyway), but personally I just don’t want to experience another 'Zenyatta For HOTY' campaign.

On a totally unrelated front, a topic that did catch my eye was a discussion on the site of my blogger friend Glenn Craven. Even though I keep finding the root of the debate a non-issue, the debate itself offers quite some value (I frequently find comment sections more worthwhile than the post itself, including on my own blog).

During said debate, I had brought up a comparison of racing’s drug problem with that of cycling, which Glenn rejected. I’m hardly the first one to draw that comparison, and it's also not the first time that I’ve seen it rejected based on the argument that cycling's doping issue was, as Glenn put it, "more obvious and well-reported".

As a longtime cycling fan (up to last fall, when they dropped the fight against cheaters for the most part), I take issue with this argument. The "more obvious and well-reported" character of cycling's problem is just that: a matter of publicity. But to the 1990s fan of cycling, the similarities between the two situation are eerie.

Just like in American thoroughbred racing, the suddenly public issue of doping was an open secret to many regular followers long before it made newspaper headlines. The problem wasn't any more rampant in 2005 or 2000 than it was in 1995, it's just that the media suddenly reported "shocking news" which had for years been commonplace knowledge to fans and many of those reporters. The only thing truly shocking was the extent of the cheating system, which (as it turns out after more than a decade of police investigations) included the vast majority of pro riders and teams, hundreds of medical professionals and even renowned medical research institutes.

Until shit hit the fan, however, cycling fans heard precisely the same kind of downplaying by pros, sporting directors and, yes, medical staff we in the horse racing fandom have become used to ('no matter what it looks like, it's always just an isolated incident, and blown out of proportion anyway').

Like in pre-investigation cycling, there has been the occasional whistleblower in American racing: Jack Van Berg labeling today’s racing environment "chemical warfare" during last year’s congressional hearings was one of several such examples out of the horseman roster.
There is also this disturbing account by former SoCal clocker Bob Kachur, an online book that I first came across about 18 months ago and initially thought must be quite well-known, but instead it seems to be a totally obscure one. I’ve read it several times since then and have continuously checked his descriptions against the facts known to racing outsiders, finally finding that the only reason it seems unbelievable at first sight is that I really don't want it to be true. I have yet to find a single instance in which I could disprove or even seriously doubt anything he writes.

Also just like in cycling during the mid-90s, there have been a handful of journalists who are unwilling to take the crap dished out by the sport’s establishment, the most prominent being Joe Drape and Andrew Beyer. Interestingly, Beyer lists cycling as his other favorite sport.

Such voices are, however, at best ignored by racing’s establishment of horsemen, racing officials, track operators, racing media etc.; often ridiculed as nutty curmudgeons, or outright accused of hurting the sport.

There are more than enough instances which make it clear that cheating in American racing is everything but a minor issue, but let’s just review one (well, two really) example(s) from this season:

Probably the most hilarious racing-related thing all year: Jeff Mullins initial defense to this spring’s detention barn incident, that he routinely used the substance in question, Air Power, on raceday in California and didn’t realize it was illegal in NY. The chuckler: it was just as illegal in CA for almost a year, meaning that Mullins unwittingly revealed that a) he and others routinely break the rules in CA; and b) Californian oversight is so incredibly lame that trainers not only never got penalized for openly violating rules, but don’t even care to learn those rules in the first place (even though "nothing but water on raceday" doesn’t seem such a tough one to memorize).
We shouldn’t be surprised though, after all CA is the state where racing officials traditionally see their primary task in helping to cover up instances of cheating, rather than in keeping such instances to a minimum. It’s also the state where, a few months later, a group of trainers including Mike Mitchell, Jeff Mullins, Art Sherman and Doug O-point-Nine'Neill saw fit to openly lobby against a steward they didn’t like. Excuse me, but isn’t opposition from a Who’s Who of cheaters the stuff that should earn a racing steward a raise rather than a trip to the unemployment office?

The facts are obvious: at least a third of North America’s Top 20 or Top 40 trainers have a long list of major rule violations (and very little remorse for any of those). Keep in mind that those are only the instances racing’s (in most states) lax oversight authorities cared to inform us about.

Life Is Not a Hollywood movie

I think one of the main reasons people are unwilling to accept the reality of widespread cheating in racing is because we’ve grown up with movie images of cheaters. One thing the cycling example makes clear is that cheaters don’t usually fit our superficial image, or even the alternate cheater images we’ve come to accept. There were the occasional tragic madmen (Marco Pantani) or desperate losers (Floyd Landis), but most of all there have been people who, in many ways, perfectly fit the cliché of the hard-working pro cyclist, who even showed a good deal of sportsmanship in other regards.

That someone is a cheater doesn’t mean they’re lazy; it doesn’t mean they owe all of their success entirely to the cheating, and it doesn’t mean they are entirely bad people. That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Jeff Mullins is a caring family man, Kirk Ziadie can be a helpful friend, or even that Rick Dutrow (on some abstract level and with obvious reservations) deeply cares about the horses entrusted to him.
All of this is possible and not even unlikely. And you know what: I still want those crooks [more colorful expletive deleted] kicked out of the sport. I don’t care what kind of a person you are in any other regard as long as you keep ruining this great sport. Be a great family man and a great friend, but as long as you can’t restrain yourself from cheating in our sport: be all of that as a postal worker, and try keeping your fingers out of the envelopes please!

(Image on top is from Good Times Cycling Blog, showing Marco Pantani; a poster child for cycling’s drug problem, although the frequently raptured Italian national hero was an unusual case in several ways. His drug-related death may have been averted if authorities hadn’t been so casual about his problems. In one case, the Italian media and cycling federation successfully lobbied that the penalty for his third positive test in three years was set out as six-month ban from October 'til March, a time he wouldn’t have competed in a race anyway)

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Of Canadians, Cinderellas & Solar Cells

Late entry, but not too late (also, the third Raceday 360 post with a title starting with Of... in only two days). I intended to handicap the E P Taylor and Canadian International today, then got carried away, first by Newmarket’s Champions Day, then by a quite stunning press release issued by Dresden Racecourse.

The Champions Day’s highlight, the G1 Champion Stakes produced a mild surprise in Twice Over’s win as well as a surprisingly-surprising-to-a-surprisingly-large-number-of-surprised-people hapless performance by the favorite Fame And Glory (which came telegraphed to everyone who paid attention to the Arc).
The undercard – if you want to use the term for 5 group races and one of those “Heritage” handicaps that really deserve the title - the Cesarewitch over Newmarket’s entire Beacon Course – saw a 33-1 G1 Dewhurst upset by yet another colt named Beethoven (in yet another case of 1-2-4 Ballydoyle dominance), Ashalanda extending the Aga Khan’s Awesome October in the G2 Pride Stakes, and Dresden File favorite Akmal topping a rags-to-riches-y season with a 7th win in 11 starts by ways of an impressive victory in the G3 Jockey Club Cup.

On the homefront, Dresden Racecourse announced that it has entered an agreement to install Germany’s largest inner-city plant of photovoltaic collectors in the racetrack infield, which may not look all that great in combination with the wooden landmark-registered grandstand. On the plus side, the 25 million € project should ensure the quality of the racing product (Dresden itself is comparatively well off, thanks to attendence figures which habitually outnumber all but the very big German tracks, but due to the remote location problems of the other East German tracks hurt Dresden, too).

As to the initial topic of the post, the Canadian International at Woodbine once again falls short of what a 2 Mio race could offer if it was scheduled a little better, with the European contingent looking particularly weak. It's a wide open field with 7/1-longshot Buccellati probably representing the value bet; 11/2 Champs Elysees and 6/1 Quijano being the underlays.

Not falling short at all is this year’s edition of the E P Taylor Stakes:

#1 Treat Gently – on class alone, the Vermeille-3rd and Opera-4th is a ridiculous overlay at 8/1 ML, but this is only her second start of the year, the other one being a convinving Alw win at Belmont in July; again competes on a track where her running style shouldn’t be that much of a disadvantage and look to be a contender here

#2 Rainbow View – British-based Dynaformer filly was the winner of the G1 Matron at Leopardstown last out and has also shown she can stay the distance, but she has had a long season and looks questionable at an 8/5 ML; then again, there is the dreaded First-Time-Lasix factor

#3 Lahaleeb – unimpressive in her last two starts, and on Euro forms has to be rated below #1 and #2; long season too and runs without Lasix; jockey switch doesn’t help either

#4 Eastern Aria – good forms in high-level Conditions and Handicap races in Britain and France, but has yet to make her graded debut; second-to-last form upgraded considerably by winner and 3rd-place finisher; campaigning without layoff since early February though, and 16th start of the year might prove one too many; FTL

#5 Princess Haya – first graded victory winning the G2 Canadian S. Over course last time out; class, speed figs and added distance remain concerns and make 7/2 ML an underlay in this field

#6 Look Herehmm, a Hernando horse on FTL! The 2008 Epsom Oaks winner kept herself in the best of companies in Europe and didn’t look half-bad; distance may be too short for her and trainer’s inexperience with transatlantic shipping is a concern, but 3/1 ML looks reasonable

#7 Roses n’ Wine – only Canadian filly in the field comes of an OSS Algoma romp, but has repeatedly shown limitations in graded company

#8 Salve Germania – mind-boggling improvement when winning the Ballston Spa in her North America debut, thus hard to handicap here; this is still a major step up in class for the now Pletcher-stabled filly;


Six European runners in a field of eight plus Princess Haya (the filly) make for more than this race’s fair share of sporting interest, but also make this another tough one to bet.
Rainbow View and Look Here are the obvious choices, but the Euro trio of Treat Gently, Eastern Aria and Lahaleeb represent better value at hard-to-believe MLs of 8/1, 12/1 and 12/1, respectively. If it wasn’t for Woodbine’s exotics takeout, this one would look like a perfect case for the dime superfecta, but with things the way they are, my tip is #1 Treat Gently, who, if coming anywhere near last fall’s form (and according to her Belmont form and workouts, she likely will) should make this one a memorable race for any across-the-board bettor. I might play a trifecta (or triactor) with some combination of her and #2 and 6 just for the hunch, takeout be damned.


First: Woodbine's morning line person had a really bad day; I've never seen MLs so far off under normal weather conditions, let alone for two major races in a row.

E P Taylor: huge upset by #3 Lahaleeb (eventually 45-1) because a) she's a pretty good horse, and b) because all of the more likely candidates got used up in an almost comical (if I hadn't had money on this race) chase after a no-hoper (#7) to fade hopelessly in the stretch.

Cdn Int'l: Won by #1 Champs Elysees, a horse I've come to memorize several years ago for his uncanny ability to find a way to lose even when he looked unbeatable, who then deviated several times before seemingly returning to his path, but who closed his career in style.
He profited from the fact that Buccellati would have won easily if aiming forward, but unfortunately wasted half his energy struggling against the jockey to get a closer look at the grandstand and was ultimately lucky to finish third.

In both races, a moderate early pace was followed by plain crazy mid-session bursts; both races were won by horses who kept out of that freak show and passed tired horses, ridiculing the "superstar jockeys" part of the whole affair.
That being said, congrats to William Buick, the young English rider who scored his first graded/group win in the E P Taylor, then made the best out of a tough ride on Buccellati.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Oh, the Humanity!

More than a month has passed since my last post, but at least I have a great excuse as I was pretty occupied with putting the finishing touches on my diploma work in Social and Economic Geography. High time to get back into the game with a four-in-one post.

In fact, the only thing I’ve handicapped over the last three weeks was the German general election. This election was, however, more than just the usual opportunity to show how much we have descended mentally and morally over the course of just four years (this time we learned that Germans, as a people, are so mind-numbingly stupid as to vote the most market-liberal option into power, just one year after the neoliberal agenda completely went bankrupt - in every possible sense of that phrase). Nope, when I started reviewing the candidates (talk about a field of bottom-level claimers), it dawned on me that this election was also gonna be the greatest spot play in betting history, thanks to the fundamentally undemocratic ramifications the “overhang seats” in MMP systems can have under very specific constellations, all of them in place this time. The kicker is: no one who doesn’t have an increased interest and at least some formal training in political systems research knows about those ramifications, and that’s why I was in every bettor's dream situation with a few minutes to go until the polls closed: knowing the outcome beforehand, and getting more than 4/5 on a lock. On that note: a hearty “ha ha” to everyone who told me that a minor in Political Science would never earn me a cent (now if I could only find a 'ha ha'-reason for the same accusation concerning my other minor in Social and Economic History...).

Otherwise, living shielded from the outside world for four weeks certainly adds perspective. As in, when you return to everyday life, the whole thing just seems too outrageous to be believable.
A nobel peace prize for a guy who has (not yet, even) closed exactly one part of a giant torture camp system while letting the rest operate freely? The rest, that’s things like Bagram Prison, where according to Europe’s biggest newsweekly, Der Spiegel, the nobel peace prize winner’s army tortured a human being by (among other things) destroying his leg so many times that the coroner’s report notified its ‘gelatinous’ consistency. The fun part: when they finally tortured him to death, the prison guards were already aware that the guy was entirely innocent, and not just because there never was any actual charge. Yep, sounds like a regular second coming of Gandhi, I suppose.
What’s next? Giving humanitarian awards to amok shooters if they don’t empty their entire magazine? Parenting awards for people who vow to only beat up their infants twice a week from now on? How ‘bout an animal advocacy award for Ernie Paragallo? He chose not to starve all of his horses, after all!

Meanwhile in German racing, Baden-Baden escaped the very real threat of having to cancel their three-day October meet for shortness of funds. In the same press conference, it was announced that there will be a 2YO BBAG auction race for 200.000 € during that very meeting.
That’s right: 45K more than the standard German G1 purse, pooped out for a number of horses who, if history has told us anything, will almost certainly never amount to even G3 level. A little more perspective: most German top horses make a mere prep start or none at all as juveniles. In fact, fields are so short that many racedays don’t even include a juvenile race, and the 100K Auction race for 2yo fillies during Baden’s summer meet looked like a farce (none of the contestants warranted a fifth of that purse), but certainly turned notable when three completely green horses collided mid-stretch, leaving a seriously injured reigning jockey champion (Eddie Pedroza) in their wake. All but two of the fillies in said race have yet to break their maiden, most haven’t been close either, and not one of them has won a race since. The tragic part: the BBAG is independent of the Internationaler Club, and while the Club faces a dire future, the BBAG is alive, well and hell-bent on its mission to destroy what’s left of German racing.

Overseas, it seems like I’ve missed one more Indian Charlie controversy. Unfortunately though, the mock paper ridiculing him had about the same level of humor ("basement") as the original.
Every time I get more behind-the-scenes info about Musselman’s rag, I’m reminded of Ridicule, a French film about a nobility so infatuated with their self-amusement and shallow intrigues that everything else becomes merely a joke to them, and all their resources are wasted for the pettiest of causes. The wit of their mockery and the gamesmanship involved have an alluring quality, and it takes both the hero and the viewer some time to free themselves of it, to see the destructive effects of the nobility’s obsession with itself. In any case, the lure is strong enough that none of the “players” ever realizes how rotten the game is until it finally comes crashing down – and then it’s too late.
I think about Ridicule a lot when I think about American racing’s “nobility”. Or today’s politics, for that matter.

Monday, 7 September 2009

GP von Baden Video, Result and Trivia

As promised, here's the video for yesterday's Grosser Preis von Baden, which in my opinion lived up to the hype.

To the extent that being caught on the line with Adlerflug in the last two editions can be considered a spell, trainer Jens Hirschberger has lifted it. The private trainer for Gestüt Schlenderhan* (which was primarily owned by Baronin Karin von Ullmann and is fully-owned by her son Georg after the grand lady of the German Turf passed away this spring, effectively merging the operations of both) needed all of three years to win his first GP, a long time considering he scored his first Derby within the first few months on the job.
The son of veteran trainer Peter Hirschberger, who runs a low-key (but well-respected) operation at Leipzig, Jens made a name for himself first as a moderately successful jockey, then working as a jockey manager, feed expert and assistant trainer for the likes of Andreas Schütz.

Another one to feel some vindication yesterday was jockey Adrie de Vries. Hirschberger's retained jockey (the kind of guy one likes to root for) picked the wrong mount in both the Derby and Rheinland-Pokal, and couldn't be aboard Getaway for the horse's G1 Deutschland-Preis victory either because of a prior commitment. Luckily, with the kind of quality in Hirschberger's barn, you get a fourth shot.

The Racing Post result sheet can be found here (actually my live/from memory recap was good enough, only I didn't fully notice that Getaway was actually driving away over the last furlong, which makes his performance all the more impressive)

*Did You Know: Schlenderhan was founded in 1869, the same year the first German Derby was run, and leads the way with no less than 18 blue riband wins.

Also, Did You Know that the term "Did You Know" is copyrighted. Oops!

Sunday, 6 September 2009

GP von Baden Preview

Why am I posting a preview for a race none of my readers (with the possible exception of Sid Fernando) cares about when I don’t even have a hot pick? To tell you the truth, I can’t fully explain it. It’s partly one of those ideas you get when returning home at six in the morning on a Sunday and aren’t even drunk, but I prefer to explain it with the joy of seeing how Germany’s most meaningful horse race has rebounded from three so-so editions with a real looker.

Baden-Baden (the name sounds just as silly in German, btw) can use it too, as the Internationaler Club is currently in bankruptcy proceedings and in dire need of a sponsor. The race will even get all of a 15-minute nationwide broadcasting slot as part of the public service’s afternoon sports lineup (which would have gone without further mention less than a decade ago, but now is enough to spawn a front page article in the racing paper). Update: burned by sloppy fact-checking (again!). Turns out the 15-minute live slot was actually a 5-minute bit later this afternoon (which would have been disappointing less than a decade ago, but now is seen as "a positive signal" by the Sport-Welt, which it actually is compared to the Derby's 11 PM slot on a regional broadcasting/cable channel).

On to the crystal ball...

Grosser Preis von Baden; 2400m; 250.000€; Group 1 for 3-y-o’s and up; 16:45 CET (1045 EST)

#1 Adelar – not very consistent, but even his best forms (such as a close second in the G2 Prix Gontaut-Biron last out) aren’t even close to winning this race

#2 Eastern Anthem – Godolphin’s Dubai Sheema Classic winner showed a nice late burst to finish third in the G1 Rheinland-Pokal, but still 2 ½ lengths behind #7 and #3; Dubai-owned challengers are always worthy of consideration for the GP though, after all Mo The Monetarily Magnificent Monarch’s Darley and Godolphin horses have won every edition of this race from 2001 to 2005 (Morshdi, Marienbard, Mamool, and twice Warrsan); Mo let his opposition take a breath for the last three years - now he's back; E.A. switches from Ajtebi to Dettori, and Flyin’ Frankie’s business trips to Germany have been nothing but frustrating this season (as were most of Godolphin’s)

#3 Getaway – lost a stretch battle of epic proportions when beaten a short head by stable companion Wiener Walzer in the Rheinland-Pokal (video below), but is once again the retained jockey’s choice. Trainer Jens Hirschberger is riding a modest 39.66% win percentage for the season being the private trainer for Georg Baron von Ullmann, who campaigns Getaway under his own silks (a mere 33.3%) and also inherited Wiener Walzer’s Gestüt Schlenderhan (a whopping 43.2%); he’s giving a kilo less to his younger companion this time and belongs into every consideration

#4 Kamsin – defending champion and last year’s Derby winner, this one hasn’t gotten up to his level this year, being decisively beaten by Getaway in his last two starts; hard to imagine a reversal, though really soft ground could go a long way.

#5 Youmzain – two-time Arc runner-up didn’t show his class when 4th in the Sheema Classic, was subsequently beaten by a nose in the G1 Coronation Cup at Epsom (a form which hasn’t held up too well, though) and finished a disappointing third in the G1 Grand-Prix de Saint-Cloud last time; still, he seems to be aimed at the Arc again and could bounce back today; Owner Jaber Abdullah also isn’t a stranger to the Grand-Prix’s trophy, having won the 1995 edition with the fittingly-named colt Germany; not sure how to interpret the choice of Kieren Fallon as a jockey

#6 Sordino – sporting one win in four lifetime starts, the 29/1 Derby runner-up came flying from far behind in every one of those starts and even has a trip excuse or two for his Hamburg performance; his trainer Waldemar Hickst recently enhanced his International prominence by winning the Ballston Spa with rather nondescript filly Salve Germania and seems to have his lot in prime condition, but a 55/10 (9/2) ML is a bit over the top; I would have preferred to see this horse at Doncaster next weekend, he absolutely strikes me as a St. Leger candidate; Update: scratched (very unfortunately, as I managed to get an incredible 16.5/1 early-market bet on him; some unique stellar constellation, and a short-lived one, obviously

#7 Wiener Walzer – If the ground is good enough and he doesn’t get scratched, the victor of the Derby as well as the above-mentioned stretch battle at Cologne may well have to make it all once again, which wouldn’t be the worst of prospects; still, he may be up for a slight setback after three hard-fought victories in as many months, adds a further kilo and switches jockeys from Fredrik Johansson to Filip Minarik, which I don’t like because Freaky Filip can be a great jockey, but is always one for a major slip in judgement, on and off the course.

(Replay of the G1 Rheinland-Pokal, August 16)

Straight Win/Place betting for this race will be available on betfair. Unfortunately that means you can’t play the exotics, but I couldn’t confidently encourage you to play into Germany’s 30% takeout tote anyway (and now you know why Baden-Baden is bankrupt; 70% handle reduction nationwide over the last decade, and every point of it earned!)

While Saratoga is only nicknamed the “Graveyard of Champions”, the Baden Grand-Prix really has been a chalk-killer: no favorite has won it since 2000’s Samum. From 2001 to 2005 (the Sheikh Mo era) no fav even finished on the board. So, statistically, this race spells trouble for either Getaway or Wiener Walzer (both 5/2 ML), while Eastern Anthem could be another ace up Mohammed’s sleeve.

I’m taking a stand against Wiener Walzer and Youmzain (risky, but you gotta start somewhere in a wide-open field). I hope Youmzain, who is coming out of a layoff after he seemed a little tired, is primarily prepping for a big effort in the Arc, there are a couple of hints in that direction (and he's done it once before, when he finished 4th at Baden-Baden, then second to Dylan Thomas in the 2007 Arc).

Which leaves Getaway as my favorite and Eastern Anthem as a value bet (if available for 11/1+). If the pace scenario set up right for him Sordino may be worth the price.

(Image: Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger)

Saturday, 22 August 2009

The World Isn't Waiting

Claire Novak’s most recent article has stirred up some controversy in the racing blogosphere. Novak writes for the racing section of, the website of the world’s largest sports network.

One of the critical responses was by Ed DeRosa, usually one of the better turf writers. I strongly disagree with most of his article for reasons discussed there, but it’s one of the minor arguments he brought up (one I didn’t respond to on his site) which keeps coming back to my mind.

Novak’s argument for questioning the sportsmanship of Jess Jackson was, among other things, this:
the completely ridiculous fact that reporters (and the public) had to wait for the overnight to come out to discover she would not be starting in Saturday's Alabama, one of five races listed as "under consideration" by her connections. [...] Enough cat-and-mouse. Set a date for a press conference, make up your mind, and make the announcement. That's what a true sportsman would do.

To which DeRosa responded:
Some have lamented that neither Jackson nor trainer Steve Asmussen publicly stated that Rachel Alexandra would not enter the Alabama Stakes, but her workout pattern clearly indicated that she would not be racing this week. For Asmussen, an easy work back followed by a bullet means a race is at least another week away. John Scheinman of the NYRA press office and trainer Mark Hennig both noticed that, so it's not like deciphering Asmussen's moves required possession of the Rosetta Stone or an advanced degree in reading tea leaves.
It’s a revealing statement, and a representative one, I fear. If people in the racing media actually think like this, it explains a lot.

Sorry racing press, the mainstream media isn’t in the habit of reading NYRA workout summaries, or studying the subtleties of the workout patterns of the nation’s Top 50 trainers. They won’t get into that habit either. ESPN is, however, in the habit of picking the sports they deem most marketable, and sports that don’t offer information aren’t marketable.

Jackson, the man who said he bought Rachel Alexandra to broaden racing's appeal, knows that. Kendall-Jackson wine bottles include information as to the appellation, grape composition, taste characteristics etc.. Why? Because customers are unlikely to buy a blank bottle for 25$, that’s why. TV networks are in exactly the same position. As long as they have a dozen sporting events offering press kits, full access and all kinds of help, they would be stupid to instead reserve a timeslot for a sport whose protagonists don’t think they need to cooperate. No manager in his right mind will choose to broadcast races that could end up being interesting, or not; one's they don't know how to promote until three days before the event.

In other sports, locker room access is a given, any development will immediately spawn a press release. In racing, you get a post-race interview with some winning horseman with a history, who snots out a few cryptic comments about “considering five or six options for the horse’s next start”. And of course: “We want to do the best by the horse! Currently our filly thinks the Woodward purse is 500K too low”.

(Although the image on top is by a South African producer actually called “Blank Bottle”, the bottle isn’t actually blank. The pictured example is a Shiraz with 2% Viognier; from the Paarl Mountains, and characterized by “intense fruit and complexity”, according to the producer.)

Friday, 14 August 2009

Girly Jocks

I’ve recently been reading the "lifestyle" section of the quite extensive website of German jockey/model Katharina Daniela Werning, after which at least two things are very clear to me:

First: I’m definitely not her type, not least because I refuse to feel bad about wearing casual clothing to any track that doesn’t include the word "Royal" somewhere in its name.

Second, she’s the kind of woman who warns newbie girls how hard it is to walk around in high heels on a racecourse, which leads her to advice that – no joke – ladies should inform their men prior to the racetrack experience that they might have to sponsor new shoes if the old ones get ruined (as a clearly superior alternative to not wearing heels). She also believes that women should put on a crown for the races in order to symbolize who’s in command, which isn’t the walking wallet to her left. Lovely!

Bottom line: if Katie would spend a little less time doing photo shootings in incomplete jockey dresses or complaining about guys who don’t pay her drinks, she probably wouldn’t be 8-for-156 for the year (5.13%, the worst percentage of all 30 jockeys with more than 100 starts).

Now, if that photo to the left doesn't say "take me seriously as a professional jockey" I don't know what does.

(Image from the Dresdner Morgenpost of July 24)

Friday, 7 August 2009

That Pesky Class Bias

Yesterday I read the following sentences in an otherwise interesting post on the West Points blog: "Last year, not one horse who had been campaigning on dirt won any of the traditional Breeders’ Cup dirt races. NOT ONE HORSE."

It was the second time I read this argument, and got me intrigued enough to spend the next two hours reviewing last year’s BC Pro-Ride races in search of the bigger picture as to how those horses with a dirt-centric career fared. A fun task that perfectly accommodated my advanced horseracing geekiness, so here it is:

F&M Sprint:
Indian Blessing and Ventura were the only reasonable candidates. Indian Blessing came from a NY dirt campaign but went on to win the La Brea at SA after the BC. Her forms looked impressive then, but less so in hindsight. You don’t need the Pro-Ride to explain why she ultimately fell to classy turf miler Ventura. Third-placed Zaftig delivers further arguments that I.B. didn’t run a bad race (she had been beaten a few lengths by her before). Intangaroo (6th) had most of her best forms on the dirt, but synthetics should have suited her running style, and she had won the Santa Monica over SA’s old Cushion Track.

Juvenile Fillies:
Cal-based Stardom Bound dominated this division all summer. Runner-up Dream Empress seems to have been more of an art-surf horse, although she did break her maiden at Saratoga. The third and fifth-place finisher (Sky Diva and Persistently) came out of classic Dirt campaigns and their result matches perfectly with what could have been expected had this race been run on the dirt. That leaves 7th-placed C.S. Silk, who did indeed disappoint, but her subsequent dirt forms weren’t any better (in fact she hasn’t won any of her 5 starts since the BC, four of them on dirt)

Cocoa Beach had made all but one of her previous 10 career starts on the dirt, but coming within 1½ lengths of Zenyatta, she was hardly a victim of the Pro-Ride. Music Note (3rd) is a similar case. 4th-placed Carriage Trail had an affinity for Keeneland’s Polytrack which didn’t seem to help at OSA. Which leaves 6th-placed Ginger Punch, a pure dirt horse until then, but the defending f&m champ was on a downward spiral since July (and her 10/1 line suggests she wasn’t really a disappointment).

One of the weakest fields ever to be seen in a 500K was eventually topped by Muhannak, whose underwhelming best forms came from the Polytracks of the Old World, although he had also won on turf. Muhannak went on to prove that he was equally undeserving of BC-winner status on the turfs of Sha Tin and Goodwood, with his only acceptable post-BC form coming from Dubai’s dirt. Delightful Kiss was the only contender with a dirt-centric past, but his 4th place wasn’t really below expectations. The most disappointing favorite of the entire BC was Sixties Icon, who struggled home 5th in this race. He’s a turf horse.

Dirt Mile:
Winner Albertus Maximus came with an artsy past, but his two post-BC starts were on the dirt, where he Wonn The Donn and placed sixth in the Dubai World Cup. Third-placed SoCal longshot Two Step Salsa also had some dirty fun at NAS after the BC, winning both starts. Lewis Michael (8th) was one of two disappointments, but he too had his best performances to the sound of the synth. The other disappointment was Well Armed, who went on to dominate the Dubai World Cup, but was the favorite for winning the Goodwood over Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride (I guess he would do better on very speed-favoring dirt, but his trainer doesn’t seem to). My Pal Charlie (4th) and Pyro (6th) were the two dirt-campaign runners, and neither disappointed.

10th-place Munnings might superficially look like he was hampered by the Pro-Ride, but then again his far-beaten runner-up performance in the Champagne was hardly astonishing if reviewed in hindsight and nothing suggests that he particularly disliked the surface. Apart from him, no dirt horses took part.

Actually, Mr West and Co. may have to reconsider their premise! While winner Midnight Lute had run a dismal performance in his only other race of last year over Del Mar's Polytrack, the majority of his top performances (including his wins in the previous BC Sprint at Monmouth and the 2007 Forego) were on the dirt.
It’s easy to miss that fact when you concentrate on dirty guy Fabulous Strike (7/1), whose 5th place finish is as close as last year’s BC got to a disappointing performance by a dirt-campaigned horse (he was beaten by only one horse, 8/1 In Summation, with minimally longer odds).

I don’t think I need to explain for the hundredth time how Curlin’s performance was not a huge surprise to anyone with some basic handicapping skills. Everyone who still doesn’t want to recognize this because “Tiago could never beat Curlin” has other issues, obviously. And is a complete hypocrite if they don’t also claim that “Smooth Air could never beat Duke Of Marmalade”. DoM was clearly a better horse, but just as clearly out-of-form. Eventually, last year’s BC was decided in a battle of giants between two of the world’s best horses.
Smooth Air (7th) and Fairbanks (10th) were the other two dirtsters in the field, neither was a victim of the “plastic”.

All in all, there is very little basis to argue that Pro-Ride was a major factor behind last year’s BC results. In any case it was a much smaller factor than the West Coast setting of Santa Anita, which kept many of the top East Coast horses away. One might argue that the "not one horse who had been campaigning on dirt won any of the traditional Breeders’ Cup dirt races"- sentence is technically correct, it is. But it's used as an argument on this occasion, and therefor the more important thing is: the implication of this sentence is wrong.
There's no reason to believe that it's impossible or even considerably harder to win a Pro-Ride BC with a horse that has been exclusively campaigned on dirt. It's just that hardly anyone has tried it, and those who did fell short for other reasons. There's also no reason to believe that Pro-Ride is any more of a factor in handicapping than speed bias, rail bias or sloppy track. It's a factor, but not an unfair one.

The fact is: if one doesn't like Pro-Ride for another reason, that’s fine. If you think Pro-Ride ruined last year’s BC: start looking for a better argument.

Oh, and if you happen to constantly find the need to attack this surface as a fundamentally unfair and (for whatever unexplained reason) dangerous type of “plastic” just because you’re willing to say anything rather than come to grips with a disillusion: go open a bottle of wine, lean back, start thinking, and shut the fuck up!

Sunday, 26 July 2009

World's Weirdest Racetracks: The Original One, or two

In the beginning, the Lords spoketh: "let there be three". But so it didn’t quite come to pass.

According to a 1740 parliament directive, British thoroughbred racing was to be limited to the three most important racecourses of the time:

The first one, located on the Knavesmire moor in York, continues to stage top-class race meetings in May and August, with a number of quality racedays held throughout the season.

The second one, Hambleton, is used as a minor training center to this day. Its location right on top of Sutton Bank in North Yorkshire ultimately proved too impractical for a racecourse, but at least today's workout riders can enjoy one of the best panoramas of any training center in the world.

The third one is known as the seat of The Jockey Club and remains one of the most prestigious on Earth - Newmarket Racecourse.

Fortunately the Lords didn’t explain the “only three”-part quite as extensively as Monty Python later would, and therefor it was never really heeded - or enforced, for that matter.

Newmarket’s claim to the title of oldest racecourse in the world is controversial, but its pivotal role in the development of modern thoroughbred racing isn’t. Starting in the 17th century, the town became home to Britain's most important racing and training center, its very name a synonym for excellence on the turf.

Much less appreciated, but no less stunning, are Newmarket’s contributions in the field of racetrack weirdness, where it remains #1:

(Image from the great site)

What’s commonly known as Newmarket Racecourse is actually two courses, consisting of nothing more than three long straights, one of which they share.

The best-known of the three is Rowley Mile, which – as you would assume from the World’s Weirdest Racetrack – isn’t actually a mile. It’s ten furlongs long, narrowly edging out Maisons-Laffitte’s 2000-meter straight for the title (Maisons-Laffitte, btw, deserves a honorable mention as WWR #11, mainly on the merits of having three winning posts at different points of a strangely-shaped course). The Rowley Mile’s most famous feature is The Dip, created by a downhill penultimate furlong and a rather steep climb for the final one.

Races over distances of more than 10f start on the Cambridgeshire Course, another straight of a full mile which owes its name to the fact that it starts and ends in the namesake county - the turn into the Rowley Mile occurs exactly on the border of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. From June to August, no racing is conducted in Suffolk, but there is still racing at Newmarket Racecourse. Horses and jockeys just make a sharper turn a little before the end of the Cambridgeshire Course and enter straight number three – the July Course.

Another straight of a mile, the July Course has its own stands and paddock area, which are located to the South of the track, facing the Rowley Mile’s. So even though both straights are run from West to East, the Rowley Mile runs clockwise while the July Course is run counter-clockwise. This layout also makes the July Course the only track in the world where half the course is actually outside the grandstand’s field of view.

Not that patrons are missing anything they could see from the Rowley Mile’s grandstand. After all, even very good binoculars don’t help much when watching a 20-strong field head-on with nine furlongs to go. And you can’t see anything before they enter the stretch either, because most of the Cambridgeshire Course is hidden behind the estate of the National Stud.

"There is no race course in the whole of the world like Newmarket. It is a severe course from the easiest five-eighths to the severest two miles. There is no horse who does not stay who will win any race there. That is what stamps the mark on any horse that wins at Newmarket. It stands to reason that Newmarket makes a heavy call upon all the art that a jockey possesses - the nursing of a two-year-old, the judgment of pace, the different gradients, the knowledge of the mount under you, whether to take the lead an eighth from home or wait to got your advantage till you are on the post"

The quote above is out of a May 3, 1919 article in the DRF, as stated by “Brownie” Carslake, an Australian jockey who after establishing himself in his native country became one of the best jockeys to ride in Britain. Carslake’s bigger point was that Australian (and North American) tracks are build with the interest of the spectators in mind, while English racecourses were designed to bring out the best in horses and horsemen. He was arguably right on both counts.

Newmarket Racecourse is at the same time the best and the worst in the world. The best track for champion racehorses and jockeys to compete against each other, and the worst track for spectators to witness them doing so. It's, in short, the World's Weirdest Racetrack.

("I think the 3 horse is a head in front with a mile to go"; Panoramio images by Footix [above] and Jonathan W [top])

World's Weirdest Racetracks: #2

Combining the spirit, and spirits, of an apres-ski party with the slightly (okay, decidedly) elitist posh of old-style spa racing, Switzerland’s most important racecourse is neither turf nor dirt; and it’s not an artificial surface either. Races at St. Moritz Racecourse are run on snow, which itself is covering the frozen surface of a lake.

So there may not be much potential for a St. Moritz Racecourse "Midsummer racing at the Spa" meeting, but the track’s three racedays in February, labeled the "White Turf", are singular in the world of racing. As is the concept of conducting thoroughbred races on a frozen lake.

Due to its location at 1822 meters (5.978 ft.) above sea level, in the middle of the Swiss Alps, the surface can usually be counted on to support runners and racegoers - the grandstand is on the lake, too. Nevertheless, racedays have occasionally been shortened and parts of the grandstand have remained closed off if the ice was getting a little thin.

Conducting upper-class events on the frozen lake fits in with several of the towns other sporting highlights such as the Polo World Cup on Snow, which uses the same grandstand, and the Cricket On Ice tournament.

St. Moritz's feature event, the 121.121 Swiss Francs (about 105k$) Grosser Preis von St. Moritz, regularly attracts a number of quality horses from other European countries. Racing at this traditional Alpine winter resort offers by far the highest purses in Switzerland, and the Grand-Prix is also the country's most valuable race, beating the only other noteworthy race (the Swiss Derby at Frauenfeld) by 21.121 Francs.

Besides Thoroughbred racing, other disciplines contested are harness trotting (with skates instead of wheels) and Skijoering, a horse-drawn ski racing discipline of Scandinavian origin. St. Moritz's White Turf races are one of the most important societal events in Switzerland.

(Skijoering is a sport for people who wanted to be harness drivers but couldn't afford the sulky and can't get their horses to remain trotting; images by Heinz Schmid)

Saturday, 25 July 2009

World's Weirdest Racetracks: #3

There is a certain kind of humor in the fact that Equidaily, whom I owe a big "thank you" for being a major factor behind the spike in readership this WWR Top 10 got, yesterday replaced the link to this series with links to a video and photos of the Duhner Wattrennen, a mixed card of harness and thoroughbred racing held at low tide on the Wadden Sea, the tidal flats of the German North Sea coast. Even more props for linking to this outstanding photo of a mudflats harness race in the rain.

The funny thing is, I almost posted today’s WWR bronze medal winner yesterday, as #4, and the only reason I ever considered ranking it outside the Top 3 was the very existence of said Duhner Wattrennen at Cuxhaven. That annual event, which includes a few extremely low-level thoroughbred races, is after all the only reason to consider #3 not entirely unique. The fact that the Duhner thoroughbred races aren’t supervised by the German Racing Board and don’t count into conditions and allowances for professional racing makes them a borderline case, and was the deciding factor for making today’s entry the #3, mentioning the Cuxhaven event only on the side.

There is only one place in Europe where official races “under the rules of racing” are held on a beach: Laytown, Ireland (and strictly speaking, the Wadden Sea is a part of the sea, not the beach). On the shore of the Irish Sea, the famous Laytown Strand Races have been held annually since 1876.

Only six races are held per raceday, one less than usual in Ireland. Post times vary based on track availability, which means low-tide. A seventh race would actually turn into an aquatic event (then again, why not – after all some European steeplechases include swimming through a small lake as part of the course). Even so, the sea will often leak into the course, and track conditions can be counted on to be "sloppy" or "muddy" for most of the track, most of the time. One interesting debate amongst bettors is the draw bias at Laytown, which statistically favors inside posts. Others have denied that logic, pointing out that the rails and markers are dismantled after the last race, and thus one year's seaside rail can be where last year's standside was.

Until 1994, some races would lead from the Winning Post to the 7-furlong mark and back, but complications that year have forced the racing club to cancel those. Only races of up to 7f have been run since.

The quality of horses is understandably limited, but unlike Cuxhaven, it's professional racing, with tote betting, bookmakers and everything that makes racedays in Ireland great. Every year, hundreds of overseas visitors will make their way to what incidentally is Ireland’s only dirt track for their early September fixture.

As mentioned, Laytown Racecourse is a non-permanent facility for the most part. Rails, posts and the concessions and amenities facilities necessary to accomodate Laytown’s about 10.000 patrons are dismantled every year. Most of the grandstand remains on-site though, given that it consists of little more than some steps carved into the dunes of County Meath.

A short flyover clip over the Laytown straight course can be seen here.

Things to listen out for if betting the races at Laytown or Cuxhaven:

(Flickr image at the top is by PaulWa, out of an album about the 2008 Laytown Races)

Friday, 24 July 2009

World's Weirdest Racetracks: #4

Of the features that set the freak show that is British racecourses apart from the rest of the world in the "national team" category, this beauty’s got it all: straights, loops, undulations, multiple directions to run in; and the quality races to show off what it's got. But expectations are high at the very top of the WWR Top 10, and while all the effort put in is certainly admirable, Goodwood Racecourse lacks that special touch of extra eccentricity that would push it into the medal ranks.

There is nothing wrong with the quality of racing, which is good on any given raceday, and top-notch during the five days of Glorious Goodwood (starting next Tuesday). The course consists of a six-furlong straight and easily the most unique loop of any track in the world, with chutes, alternative routes and shortcuts all over the place. The 2-mile Goodwood Cup gets an extra point for being run without a starting gate, and starting mid-turn.

Goodwood’s racing history dates back to the year 1800, when the 5th Duke of Richmond allowed members of the Sussex militia to conduct Gentlemen’s races on his premises at Goodwood House (which is actually more than a mile away, but Dukes have a different understanding of the word "backyard"). From 1801 on the public was allowed to attend these races and the track quickly established itself among Southern England’s finest, despite a certain tendency to be covered in fog from the nearby coast on racedays. Ownership of both the estate and racecourse has remained with the Dukes to this day. Over the last decades, it has become one of the more innovative of British racecourses, building a modern grandstand and being one of the first to twin with another club: Oak Tree (the reason for the Goodwood Stakes at OSA and the G3 Oak Tree Stakes during Glorious Goodwood).
WWR Fun For Nuts:
The weirdness of Goodwood Racecourse is in the course layout and details. Comparing the 2 graphics above (which I callously stole from and, respectively), try to figure out the route horses have to take for every distance!

WWR Quiz:
Find out which of the two images is wrong, and why!
(If that's not enough for you, the layout in the Hamilton Park chapter also includes two mistakes, both hinted at in the text).

(Image on top is a Picasa image by John)

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

World's Weirdest Racetracks: #5

Named after the first regular horse racing venue in Paris, this is the only racecourse on Mauritius, a remote island in the Indian Ocean. Almost by default, this makes it the most important track within a radius of more than 1000 miles.

It would also be the most remote racecourse in the world if it wasn’t for the couple of (amateur) racedays held on Madagascar. With 787 square miles of area (less than a quarter the size of Rhode Island) and topped by a steep peak, plain land is scarce on the island, which required the Mauritius Turf Club to build this one-of-a-kind racecourse. One of the smallest turf racetracks in the world, Champ de Mars is only 1200 meters in circumference and so squeezed in between residential zones that there only was room for an extremely thin grandstand.

Racing is usually conducted every Saturday afternoon from April to December, and is the most popular sport in the nation. Because attendance numbers are far in excess of the grandstand’s capacity, the track's infield looks like Pimlico’s during the Preakness even for the most pedestrian of cards. On major racedays virtually every inch of the infield is packed with either parking cars or fanatical fans, some of whom can't possibly be able to watch the race from their position. All of this combines to add one of the most impressive atmospheres in world racing to an already weird racetrack.

Mauritius doesn’t have a breeding industry of its own, most of the horses are SAF-breds. In fact, most or all of the 13 trainers currently listed on the MTC’s website are imports too.

Extra points are awarded for a passionate racecaller who delivers with a trademark Mauritian Creole dialect and an equally passionate audience, all of it combining to make racing on Mauritius a unique experience and sort of a traditional start into Saturday’s racing for European bettors, who are treated with the Mauritius simulcast before British racing starts.

Watch the 2006 edition of the Indian Ocean's most prestigious race, the Maiden Cup (which is not a Mdn race)

World's Weirdest Racetracks: #6

While the vast majority of the WWR Top 10 was selected for the physical features of the track itself, today’s candidate qualifies on accumulated weirdness, on the premises and in the area surrounding it.

Happy Valley Racecourse was opened in 1864 on what was the only plain on Hong Kong Island (Sha Tin, opened in 1978, is located in the New Territories on the Asian mainland). Racedays are held on most Wednesday nights during the season, a concept HK introduced several decades before CDI had that “stroke of genius”. Another aspect worth copying is HK racing's integrity system, based on tough stewards, full disclosure of pretty much all aspects of a horse's record and a no-tolerance doping policy.

As to our topic, Hong Kong is a really weird country, or self-governing Special Administrative Zone, to be precise. It has a unitary administration (meaning there are no local or regional councils), and most of the settlements are primarily consisting of skyscrapers. With 16.380 inhabitants per square mile, it’s statistically the fourth-most densely populated jurisdiction in the world (UK: 640; US: 80), yet only 17% of the country are settlements, and there are vast uninhabited mountain ranges, dozens of islands and a couple of remote villages you would rather expect to find in Vietnam or Malaysia. As a unitary authority, it’s formally a city-state, but in practice it consists of a number of separate cities (HK City, Kowloon, Sha Tin etc.).

HK racing and gambling are unitary, too, with the HKJC managing both tracks, all OTBs, licensing and even buying the mostly Down Under-bred horses which are then re-sold to HK owners. It also has a de jure gambling monopoly (which includes betting on football), although there are several illegal and semi-legal alternatives, and the casinos of Macao are within easy reach for HK residents. Officially a non-profit company, HKJC is the country’s biggest tax-payer and second-most important sponsor of public projects (behind the state itself).

Happy Valley has an average attendance of more than 17.000 and a capacity of about 55.000 in one of the world’s most impressive grandstands, yet not a single stakes race is run there. Since the opening of Sha Tin, all pattern races are run at the larger track, where Hong Kong’s stables and training centers also are situated (click here for a look behind the scenes of the HKJC, including one of the most unique stable areas in the world).

As the only plain area in HK City, Happy Valley’s infield is packed with playing fields and small stadiums, the most important being HKFC Stadium with a capacity of 2.500. From 1976 to 1981 HKFC Stadium was home of the Hong Kong Sevens (Rugby Union) Tournament, which grew into the world’s most important Sevens Cup.

Hong Kong shows how racing CAN be a healthy industry and interesting sport in our time. It’s a weird track, but one to learn from.

(Hollywood Park is in the process of making way for low-rises in a poor neighborhood; Happy Valley is in no danger while being located in this one.)

(Wikimedia Commons image by Minghong; image at the top is a Picasa image by Kurt)

Monday, 20 July 2009

World's Weirdest Racetracks: #7

Even though it's far too well known as one of the world’s weirdest racedays to retain much of the spirit that originally characterized the event; the setting and iconic status of the place should ensure that it remains a unique one for decades to come, even if in a totally different way.

This annual event, first held in 1882, doesn't bear much resemblance to its early days anymore, or even to what it was two decades ago, when it was still largely an authentic Outback festival. The famous Birdsville Races have pretty much become “Royal Ascot meets Spring Break meets Burning Man” by now. Not many of the 5.000 visitors who make their way to this 120-inhabitant village, otherwise best known as the first re-entry into something remotely resembling civilization for travelers crossing the Simpson Desert, are from nearby towns (or whatever nearby means in an area where postmen deliver by plane and the average farm is bigger than some European countries).

The racetrack itself has basically remained the same tough, an oval route through the desert (talk about an original Dirt Track!), ending at a winning post that seems randomly-placed, somewhere in the overwhelming vastness of the Outback's Great Big Nothing.

Not so well known is the fact that Birdsville is merely the first of three stages for the Simpson Desert Racing Carnival. For an experience that more closely resembles the original Birdsville, the other two stages - Bedourie (where the focus is just as much on rodeo and camel racing) and the “family-oriented” Betoota, - are certainly better alternatives. As are other Outback racedays like the ones at Cloncurry, McKinlay or Boulia (all in Queensland).

Make no mistake though, Australia has for the last few decades been more radical than any other country in selling out every bit of its sporting heritage for the almighty AUS$, which means that any of those that you hear about for the third time has probably lost much of its appeal by then. For the purpose of the WWR however, there’s no denying that precisely this over-the-top kind of joyful larrikinism is what sets Birdsville apart from the other Outback racedays (and for all parties involved, let's hope it stays that way).

Watch this clip for a decidedly touristy and kitschy account of what has become a decidedly touristy and kitschy raceday.

A better account, albeit with lower-quality footage can be found on youtube.

("Downtown Birdsville scene", although presenting Birdsville as an isolated cowboy - or jackaroo - community is a pillar of most articles about the raceday, the village's economy is actually tourism-based all year; Panoramio images by Jonathan Berry and A2thaMFK [top])

World's Weirdest Racetracks: #8

If ever there was a region tailor-made for horse racing, it’s Yorkshire. This Northern England (ceremonial) county has the gentle hills, vast countryside and soils that just scream “build a grandstand, paddock and some rails here, or at least a stud farm and gallops”. Not surprisingly, it was one of the cradles of modern thoroughbred racing, and remains a stronghold for thoroughbred racing, training and breeding.

For a detailed history of racing in Yorkshire, this great site (one of my all-time favorites) offers everything you need to know, and then some. Other Yorkshire contributions to sports history: Sheffield is home to the world’s oldest Association football (Soccer) clubs, while industrial West Yorkshire was the birthplace of Rugby League.

Today, Yorkshire offers the highest racecourse concentration of any British county, ranging from top-level tracks York and Doncaster to the charms of small-town racecourses such as Thirsk, Catterick or the WWR’s #8.

While it may not look like a true World’s Weirdest Racetracks contender at first glance, the beauty of Pontefract Racecourse is in the dimensions. It’s home to the world’s longest regular flat Hcp race, the 2m 5f 122y Pontefract Marathon Hcp (held in April) as well as probably the only remaining track in the world to frequently schedule lower-level races over 18 furlongs. In a way it has to, given that the course itself is also the world’s largest thoroughbred racetrack. Thanks to a circumference of no less than two miles, the entire town park fits into its infield. Extra points are awarded for the unusual feature that the stretch is barely half as long as two other straights (it’s still slightly longer than 2 furlongs).

("I really wouldn’t want to be the track announcer on a foggy day"; Panoramio image by Lee Collings, not even showing the full extent of the Pontefract infield)

Sunday, 19 July 2009

World's Weirdest Racetracks: #9

This Glasgow area racecourse demonstrates how you can effectively cram a track into just about any location, even if there really doesn’t seem to be enough space, or suitable terrain. It’s not technically featuring a unique layout since Salisbury (a few hundred miles to the South) uses a similar one, but Salisbury’s is larger, and its uphill stretch pales by comparison.

One of five racecourses in Scotland, Hamilton Park is the only one to exclusively conduct flat racing (Perth and Kelso are National Hunt courses, Musselburgh and Ayr offer both modes). In 1947, Hamilton conducted the first evening meeting in British racing, now a staple of British and Irish racing during the summer months. In 1971, it also premiered morning racing, which was not picked up as a regular feature.

(Graphic from

Basically, this 18th century racecourse is nothing more than a six-furlong straight, with a loop near one end of it. Undulations are hefty even by British standards, the 6f start is at 61 meters above sea level, dropping to a low point of 47m, then uphill to 58m about hundred yards in front of the Winning Post (which is at 56m). The loop is even more extreme, going downhill from 48m to 38m, then steeply uphill until it joins the straight course at a height of 59m (measured using Google Earth, so it might be off by a meter or two).

This layout allows races of up to 13 furlongs, with those over the maximum distance actually starting some way in front of the winning post, going up the stretch, through the dip in the loop, up the hill and then back down the stretch.

For races over a distance of 11 furlongs and beyond, this layout means trouble whenever a horse unseats their jockey at the start. For the purposes of the World’s Weirdest Racetracks, it means #9.