Ray Paulick has a thought-provoking article on his site today about California thoroughbred racing thinking of going back to dirt racetracks. He calls it "Priority #1, Horses or Horseplayers"
Southern California-based trainer Bob Hess crystallized the often toxic debate over synthetic tracks as well as anyone I’ve talked with on the subject: “My horses are happy on it, and they’re lasting a lot longer,” said Hess, a 44-year-old, second generation horseman and a graduate of Stanford University. “My clients are getting more bang for their buck. But without gamblers, we are nothing: there are no purses and no owners. The reality is the gamblers hate this shit. They have no confidence in it. From what they tell me, it’s inconsistent and changes from track to track. Most gamblers tend to play speed, and if you play speed out here, you’re screwed.”
He goes on to talk about the death rate on synth versus dirt and how we balance the two for the betterment of racing.
In betting, I am neither pro or anti-synth. I started betting thoroughbreds seriously late in the game. I learned to play plastic tracks and have no problem with them for betting. If I had played all my life at a venue that changed, I probably would have thought differently. We hate change, that is obvious and understandable.
Being indifferent to the surface for my handicapping, I do not really care (other than my respect for horseplayers who do not like them), but what I do care about are the horses. When people within the business (we see this especially from old-time cappers in the Daily Racing Form) rail on synthetics, that is fine, however what is not fine to me is they never offer an alternative to help the horses.
Unlike harness racing where horses very rarely break down and die, in the runners it happens fairly often. It makes me sick to my stomach and I often turn the days racing off whenever I see it. It might be "part of the game" for some, however I have a visceral reaction to breakdowns, and it is more than part of the game for me. On that front, synthetics seem to help:
According to statistics compiled by the CHRB’s equine medical director, Dr. Rick Arthur, the number of equine fatalities per 1,000 starts has declined significantly at every track in California. Santa Anita Park, for example, had 2.81 fatalities per 1,000 starts in the four years prior to the synthetic installation; that number has fallen to 1.64 per 1,000 since the conversion. (Hollywood Park has gone from 2.87 to 1.57/1,000; Del Mar from 2.47 to 1.65/1,000; Golden Gate Fields from 3.90 to 1.84/1,000). Click here to see the complete set of statistics.
So do we help horseplayers? Of course we do. But do we do it at the expense of the horses by moving back to what was not working before?
It is ironic to me that some who complain and want to go back to dirt are often the same people who complain that racing is not on mainstream television. Well, with a snapped leg and a faceplant in the homestretch happening way too often, how in the hell can we ever be mainstream?
There has to be a better way. I sincerely hope that racing does not move backwards, it moves forwards and works on finding that better way. Synthetic tracks have problems, but dirt had problems too.
Note - Dick Powell, who runs an ADW with large players, has a good comment on the Paulick piece "When I was a kid, I remember the old-time harness players complaining about the mile track at the Meadowlands when all they knew was the half mile tracks at Yonkers, etc. They adjusted." That goes well with our post below. A generation after mile tracks went mainstream in harness, handicappers flock to them, and many abhor the smaller ovals. Change takes time.