30 March 2010

The Artificial Surface Debate Continues

Dubai just gave away a ton of money, much of it to some mediocre Stake type horses. The results on Saturday sparked horse racing handicapping guru Steven Crist to pop a vein or two in his head.

I agree with Crist to a point. Artificial surfaces definitely create more random results than real dirt. It is still possible to handicap a three horse triactor box that pays over $1800 for a buck, for example.

You can’t love a horse

Vic Zast put out a column on Sunday, Dirt Is Officially A Four Letter Word. I think it is a very fair analysis of the reality of artificial surfaces, though the title of the article is a little deceiving as it is from the Euro/Dubai perspective.

The reality is that artificial surfaces need to be bet in a different way than dirt races. On the dirt, a handicapper can love a horse to win (though, as we know, they don't necessarily have to win), but on artificial surfaces, it might be possible to love a horse to run in the money.

There are a few reasons for the randomness. Jockeys tend to race as if they are on the turf, and they don't ask the horse until there is four furlongs or less to go in the race. Positioning becomes more important, good trips especially in the last half mile, as well as being on the biased part of the track, outweigh a horses overall true natural ability on race day much of the time. Kickback sometimes is stronger on some days, and horses seem to be individuals when it comes to them handling the kickback. Texture of the surface has also been a going concern, as the characteristics of the track tend to change with even slight temperature changes of a few degrees. The same horse might like the footing on one day, and not like it on another day. Drafting seems to be more advantageous on these surfaces as well. Many times if a horse goes to the front or gets the lead too early at Woodbine, the horse is much less likely to hang on when compared to when Woodbine was a dirt strip.

Polytrack seems to be equivalent to tracks that used to be called "slow" in The Racing Form (you rarely see that designation anymore). Tapeta and Pro-Ride tend to be closer to "good-slow" tracks.

When it comes to horseplayers, artificial surfaces are definitely a polarizing issue. Many hate it with a passion....and this is not a good thing because the racing industry in Canada and the USA can not afford to lose any more customers.

Artificial surfaces need to be handicapped with value in mind because of the randomness. High takeouts of course, make it so value is hard to come by no matter what the surface is, but there seems to be more value plays found for artificial surface bettors. It might be that the more sophisticated handicappers bet on dirt tracks, and many avoid artificial surfaces. But with handle in North America dropping, this phenomenon could change rather quickly.

So What Is Good About Artificial Surfaces?
Besides, the possible value that may still exist when betting exotics or longer priced horses (not quite throwing mud against the wall, but pretty close), artificial surfaces apparently save horses lives. Horses euthanized on track at Woodbine dropped by 60% since changing surfaces. However, we've seen some real bad jockey injuries on artificial surfaces, and it is commonly heard that when a jockey is unseated, there is no bounce on the surface. Would the injuries to Rene Douglas, Julia Brimo and Chad Beckon have been as severe if they occurred on the dirt?

Perhaps the best thing that could come out of artificial surfaces has to do with the future of the breed. It is pretty apparent that horses need more stamina to be successful. Breeding for two year old speed becomes less favorable. The result could be a breed that can race longer distances and horses that have much longer careers. When horses have longer careers they tend to attract more of a fan following, which of course, is good for growth.

Obviously, we are not there yet. The US Triple Crown is held on dirt tracks, and the good ones tend to hit stud by 3 or 4 at the latest, while the others seem to just disappear very quickly due to injury or just plain burn out.

It will be interesting to see what happens in clashes between Europeans (who are now breeding for artificial surfaces) and US bred horses. In Ontario now, horses are being bred for artificial surfaces as well. Over the next 3-5 years, I expect Ontario bred older horses to beat up on US bred horses going long, and on any surface. Time will tell.

Nick Kling slams Crist
Nevertheless, I consider a March 27 blog entry titled "Dubai World Crapshoot" written by Daily Racing Form (DRF) Publisher and columnist Steven Crist to be needlessly intemperate. If legendary DRF executive columnist Joe Hirsch was still alive, he would be embarrassed someone from his beloved 'Turf Authority' had composed anything so obnoxious.

A couple of very passionate Pace Advantage Forums on this topic:
Steve Crist: Tapeta Shmapeta! and Vic Zast: Dirt Officially a Four-Letter Word!

Fun Stuff: Bill Christine Lists 25 Horse Racing Quotes


malcer said...

"The reality is that artificial surfaces need to be bet in a different way than dirt races" - I think this is exactly right.

A lot of the hatred towards artificial surfaces comes, IMO, from the frustration of many longtime bettors that formerly great handicapping strategies simply don't translate to the synth. North American bettors have grown up with thousands of variants of speed and pace handicapping, and most of the speed and pace strategies simply don't translate to artificial surfaces.
It is an enormous change, but I think it's worth it in the long run, mainly because breeding for speed has become a dead-end road over the last few decades.

railbirdbrad said...

Most old fashioned handicappers dont have the time to put in to re-adjust to synth tracks,too much work for little profit,thus purses will drop and handle will drop,I h8 Poly crap tracks,id rather bet Beaulah,the biggest hole in racing,where the racing is some times fixed!IN 2010 im starting my Dirt and Turf diet,im going to try my best to stay off the Polycrap.

Anonymous said...

Bad handicapper on the dirt equals a bad handicapper on the poly. The percentage of winning favorites at Woodbine for example has remained within the historical norm of 33-35% as have the on the board finishes. The leading trainers and jockeys are the best trainers and jockeys. If there was a high degree of randomness because of poly, well there would be randomness of these indicators. Poly just gives another excuse to a bad handicapper who is delusional about his/her skill.

Cangamble said...

Anon, for one thing, favorites won at 31% last year. But the fact that you point to favorites as "indicators" to randomness, tells me you aren't very knowledgeable when it comes to handicapping.

Any handicapper with any degree of sophistication knows that polytrack produces a heck of lot more randomness. There is actual mathematical proof on the threads I linked to at Pace Advantage.

Railbirdbrad said...

On the 25 Horse racing quotes,I have some of my ownn.1'That horse was juiced to the gills.2 You cant win em all,or can you!3 Take the money and run ,or just run!4 That horse had a new tatto last start!5,I hope my horse gets scratched at the gate,I can really use the money!

Anonymous said...

OOPS my bad. 31% last year, I was way off, pardon my lack of knowledge and sophistication.

With my limited knowledge I misunderstood the meaning of randomness to mean: a process of selection in which each item of a set has an equal probability of being chosen.

Based on the approximate average of 9 starters per race at woodbine, favorites should win at about 11% if it was random. But what do I know. Why don't you check out the other synthetic tracks and report back how favorites are doing.

By the way how much is a "heck of a lot more"?

Bad dirt handicapper equals bad poly handicapper.

Cangamble said...

Sorry anon, but the empirical evidence shown in the PA thread show that your assertions and conclusions are heavily flawed.

Anonymous said...

well if it's on PA, it must be.....aww forget it.

Cangamble said...

It is data base information which proves that polytrack produces less predictability from many different angles. I suggest you look at it, you might learn something.