Archive for Keeneland

Are Large Fields and Polytrack Connected???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Dick Powell of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Handicapping Insights

The Blue Grass Stakes (G1) was run for the eighth and final time on Polytrack Saturday and California shipper Dance With Fate (Two Step Salsa) will go into the history books as the last winner over the synthetic track.

Whether or not Dance With Fate goes on to greatness three weeks later in the Kentucky Derby is a moot point. He beat 13 rivals in a terrific betting race and joins the likes of Bandini, Sinister Minister and Millennium Wind that won the Blue Grass and little else.

I picked those three as they won the Blue Grass back when it was run on dirt. Since switching to Polytrack, the Bluegrass has had a spotty record producing classic types but that was the case in the most recent years when it was run on dirt. Not much changed but at least the Blue Grass renewals that were run on Polytrack had big fields.

A couple of years ago, the Jockey Club spent millions of dollars to have McKinsey & Co. do extensive market research on our industry. One common theme that they, and every other forum, has come up with is that field size is a critical component of business success. Bigger fields create more exotic wagering opportunities and more betting.

Despite its universal acceptance, racing still pays lip service to field size. It brags when it is up marginally but despite fewer foals produced, still runs too many races. A slight increase in field size barely results in marginal results. When we say we want bigger field sizes, I have to quote a panel at a Thoroughbred Racing Association seminar that stated, “We want seven 10s and not 10 sevens.”

In other words, seven races a day with 10 horses in each instead of 10 races a day with seven horses in each. But each day, despite McKinsey’s research that reinforced what we already knew, racing still gives us 10 sevens each day.

No further proof is needed when you look at the recent decisions of Keeneland and Del Mar to pull out their Polytrack and go back to dirt. It’s not like dirt is the new surface and they were taking a big gamble to install it. They have years of experience on dirt, eight and seven years experience with Poly, and they ignored the proven advice that bettors want big fields.

In the years between 1999 and 2006, the Blue Grass was run on dirt at Keeneland. The average field size for the eight runnings was 8.86 starters per race. When Polytrack was installed for the 2007 meeting, the last eight runnings of the Bluegrass Stakes had an average field size of 13.14, an increase of 48 percent. If you were told that field size for your premier three-year-old race would increase by 48 percent, you would agree to a synthetic track of plastic bottle caps.

I went back and looked at the Pacific Classic (G1) at Del Mar to see what the results were when they switched to Polytrack in 2007. In the years between 2000 and 2006, the Pacific Classic was run on dirt and the average field size for the seven runnings was 8.28 starters per race. When Polytrack was installed for the 2007 meeting, the average field size for the seven runnings increased to 10.71, an increase of 29 percent.

As far as betting was concerned, it was hard to gauge the results since over the past 14 years, betting menus have changed dramatically and more wagering options fractionalize existing pools.

Was the Blue Grass a better Kentucky Derby prep when it was run on dirt? I would say yes, but not by much. Was the Blue Grass run on Polytrack a better race? I would say yes, by far.


Has The Synthetic Era Ended For American Horse Racing???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Steven Crist of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Tread wearing thin on synthetic era

The announcement last week that Del Mar will replace its Polytrack racing surface with natural dirt for the 2015 racing season may well signal the end of the synthetic-track era in American racing after less than a decade.

The number of important races run over various synthetic surfaces peaked in 2008 and 2009, when 38 Grade 1 races each year – more than a third of the nation’s Grade 1 inventory – were run on Polytrack at Del Mar and Keeneland, Cushion Track at Hollywood, or Pro-Ride at Santa Anita. There were still 31 synthetic Grade 1 races in 2010 when the Breeders’ Cup and its seven main-track Grade 1’s moved to dirt at Churchill. Then Santa Anita switched back to dirt in 2011, Hollywood closed its doors for good at the end of 2013, and now Del Mar is switching back to dirt.

So from that high of 38 synthetic Grade 1’s in 2008 and 2009, there are likely to be just six synthetic Grade 1’s in 2015, all at Keeneland – unless and until that track switches back to dirt, a move many in the industry believe is now inevitable.

Keeneland’s signature main-track races – the Blue Grass and Ashland in the spring, and the Breeders’ Futurity, Alcibiades and Spinster in the fall – have declined in stature during the Polytrack era, having been won largely by grass horses who have had little other success in Grade 1 races on the dirt. When Keeneland had the only synthetic Grade 1 races in the sport back in 2006, it was a pioneer. If it still has them in 2015, after the biggest venues that followed its lead have changed back, it might instead be perceived as stubbornly clinging to a rejected technology despite its longtime motto of “Racing as it was meant to be.”

The proprietors of both Del Mar and Keeneland have said that they want to host Breeders’ Cups in the future, and while the Breeders’ Cup has taken no official position on requiring a dirt main track, it became clear after the 2008 and 2009 editions on Pro-Ride that the future of the series was on dirt.

“There is no way we would have gone back to Santa Anita so many times if they hadn’t gone back to dirt,” said one Breeders’ Cup board member. “And I think it has been made very clear to Del Mar and Keeneland that any chance they have of hosting a Breeders’ Cup is contingent on having dirt tracks.”

Regardless of what Keeneland does, the other elephant in the room when it comes to synthetic surfaces is the $10 million Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest race. The World Cup was conceived as a dirt race and when it was run at Nad Al-Sheba from 1996 through 2008, it routinely attracted top American dirt horses, including the victorious Cigar (1996), Silver Charm (1998), Captain Steve (2001), Pleasantly Perfect (2004), Invasor (2007), and Curlin (2008).

Since being run on a Tapeta surface at Meydan in 2010, it has become a nearly meaningless race beyond the money, with no championship implications and diminished American participation. Changing the World Cup from dirt to Tapeta was clearly a premature move, probably based on the Maktoum family’s false impression that racing in America and perhaps elsewhere was headed for a synthetic future.

Now, with synthetic Grade 1 racing on the verge of disappearing from the sport here, and little movement abroad toward racing top-class horses over anything but grass or dirt, running the world’s richest race on a synthetic surface makes it something of a white elephant, little more than a rich novelty.

Del Mar is currently searching for the right kind and mix of dirt for its new main track, and that reflects an opportunity for other American tracks now that the synthetic age is passing: To take the time, effort and money that was spent trying to invent new racing surfaces into improving the safety and quality of dirt tracks in this country.

While there was plenty of politics and misinformation behind the introduction of the synthetic tracks, many of their advocates were well intentioned, trying to improve the welfare of horses and riders. Now that the sport has pretty much decided to keep its main-track racing on dirt in this country, that goal should be preserved, and the entire industry should work together to make dirt racing as safe as it can be.


Kentucky Stakes Rule Penalizes Trainers Looking For Best Spot

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jennie Rees of Courier-Journal…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

A rule that needs to be scratched (well, actually, rewritten to exempt stakes)

A bizarre Kentucky regulation required the scratch of Console in Friday’s Phoenix, with Medal Count and Oogley Eye to be scratched by the stewards from Saturday’s Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland.

Here’s what happened: The regulation requires a horse who is on the “also-eligible” list for a race that overfills, then is entered in and gets in the body of another race, will automatically be scratched from the race in which it is on the AE list (akin to a waiting list). Such rules almost always apply only to overnight races, not stakes. But the Kentucky regulation makes no exception for stakes, where owners pay nomination, entry and starting fees to run.

As it turns out, there were scratches in the Phoenix and expected defections in the Breeders’ Futurity, so the horses would have gotten to run in those races. But one doesn’t know that going in. And because Bill Mott entered Console in Saturday’s Woodford turf sprint, and Dale Romans entered Medal Count and Oogley Eye in Sunday’s Bourbon on turf as back-up plans, they unwittingly put themselves in positions to be scratched from the races in which they really wanted to compete.

The irony (and what makes this particularly galling) is that horses who get in the body of two stakes can run in either. Example: Hogy being scratched from the Phoenix to run in Saturday’s Shadwell. And trainer Todd Pletcher double-entered Intense Holiday in both the Breeders’ Futurity and today’s Champagne in New York, with the colt running in the Champagne – which otherwise would have made room for one of Romans’ horses.

But trainers who are entering their horses in other spots to ensure they get a chance to run are penalized, as are their owners.

And this is serious business this time of the year, with so many of these races “Win and You’re In” challenge events where the winners get their entry fees paid to the Breeders’ Cup. Including the Phoenix and Breeders’ Futurity.

Yes, those horses still have a shot to run (and in Breeders’ Cup challenge races) but not in the race that their trainers obviously thought suited them best. What are they supposed to do? Not enter another stakes, hoping for a scratch that might not come?

Chief state steward Barbara Borden said the stewards must apply the rule as written, and that it’s clear that the horses must be scratched. Romans argued that another reg exempts stakes, but Borden said that applies only to race preference lists, which are different from also-eligible lists.

“The rule doesn’t exclude stakes,” she said, showing a reporter the rule.

She said the stewards will ask the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to review the regulation. “It’s a rule that definitely needs to be reviewed, and we will put in our two cents in as to what it should say,” she said.

Those two cents no doubt will be two words: add “except stakes.”

This bad rule was exposed because of Keeneland’s full stakes fields, the fact that there is so much crossover between Polytrack and grass racing, and that Keeneland had stakes for both surfaces so close together.

Making it worse, Console had already gotten his Lasix medication four hours before post time, and then was scratched.

No doubt it was an oversight by those who drafted/wrote/fine-tuned the regulation. But it’s still highly embarrassing to get its major flaw uncovered on one of the biggest racing weekend’s in Kentucky. The good thing is that the high-profile nature means the rule has the best chance to get corrected, quickly.


Is Complex Terminology A Roadblock For Potential Fans of Horse Racing?

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Amanda Duckworth of ESPN…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Word Play

Given its long duration, one of the best places on earth to have unexpected and thought-provoking conversations about horse racing is the Keeneland September yearling sale.

The first few days of the sale are always a veritable Who’s Who of the racing world, but even during the rest of its two-week run, there are plenty of people on hand. At any given point, some of them are going to have time on the their hands. It is the hurry up and wait nature of any horse sale.

Talking is a natural way to pass the time, and I am convinced the amount of opinions and gossip that go around the sale grounds could rival that of any high school. Considering an average of 400 horses go through the ring each day, it is no surprise there are a lot of people, a lot of horses and a lot of noise.

Inevitably when covering the sale, I reach what I consider my Grinch moment, where all I want to do is go around saying, “the noise, noise, noise, noise” a la the beloved Dr. Suess character. If my schedule allows, that is when I try to find a spot in the back walking ring to flip through my sale catalog and decompress.

It was at this moment in time last week when I was approached by a woman who was astonished I knew how to read a catalog page. As the days have passed, I keep returning to our conversation because it highlighted a long standing issue: is horse racing’s vernacular keeping fans away?

While her directness was startling, in all fairness, I can appreciate why she walked up to me unprompted to express her surprise. I was sitting cross-legged on a concrete wall eating a Tootsie Roll Pop. Combined with the fact I was wearing barn appropriate tennis shoes, had just pulled my hair into a ponytail with my fingers, and tend to look young for my age, she probably thought I was 12.

When I pointed out I was probably a great deal older than she was thinking, she pointed at the candy and said, “Well, you are eating a sucker.”


But after I explained I cover horse racing and everything that goes along with it for a living, she started asking questions. It turns out she sells real estate. She also confessed that sale catalogs and race programs overwhelm her and that she didn’t think she would ever understand them.

We chatted some more and then she went on her way. But her words have stuck with me.

Although the ultimate goal of horse racing — cross the finish line first — is pretty easy to understand, there is a lot that goes into that simple act.

Pedigrees, speed figures, track bias. Trainer habits, owner demands, jockey talent. Dirt tracks, grass tracks, synthetic tracks. Bar shoes, glue-on shoes, no shoes … the list goes on and on.

The point being, I get horse racing can get complicated pretty quickly. Multiple tracks do things to try to educate new fans, and there are also some fantastic online resources, but the intricacies aren’t something you are going to pick up overnight.

In recent years, the Breeders’ Cup has tried to make the event more “fan friendly” by doing things like changing the Distaff to the Ladies’ Classic because it is supposedly easier to understand. From the day this idea was introduced, it rubbed me the wrong way for multiple reasons.

Every sport has its own terminology, and I think that should be embraced. I also remain a bit surprised no producer of lady products has stepped up to claim that sponsorship. The Lady Speed Stick Ladies’ Classic does have a nice ring to it.

But after talking with this kindly stranger at the Keeneland sale, I couldn’t help but wonder if my reaction to things like the Ladies’ Classic wasn’t on the arrogant side. Maybe the way to attract new fans isn’t through education but readjustment of the establishment.

I have toyed with that idea for the better part of a week now, and arrogant or not, I just can’t make myself buy into it.

If you care about something, you will take the time to learn about it. Furthermore, you don’t have to understand everything about a sport to enjoy it. The offside rule in multiple sports plagued me for years, but it never kept me from getting into a good game.

The fact this sport can be complicated is not a bad thing. My conversation with the stranger at the sale highlighted that curiosity encourages conversation, which in turn can lead to education.

Plus, for all of that, we all have the friend that picked the 100-1 longshot winner because the horse had a memorable name. A great time can be had by one and all at a horse race, whether you can spout off five generations of Secretariat’s pedigree or not.

I stand by the idea that it is fun, excitement and openness that will get people to come back, not the catalog pages and terminology.