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!