Thursday, November 30, 2017

Pulling Back The Curtain

Looking back on the 2017 that was, it’s safe to say it’s been a testing one for the sport of horse racing.

Takeout rates were once again at the forefront with notable rises resulting in vociferous responses from horseplayers. Now, it isn’t surprising to see business entities attempt to take a bigger slice of the pie and not publicize it. That’s part of the game. It’s also not surprising to see a tight-knit community of horseplayers be vocal about why they disagreed with said changes and call for a boycott.

But, the sobering reality of horse racing in its current state is that instead of calling for changes which would benefit the sport as a whole, we waste our time making a barrage of excuses.

“Bad weather. That’s why handle was down.”

“The field sizes were smaller this year, so there was less wagering.”

Or the latest evolution, which involved media members receiving flat out incorrect, inflated figures from management bodies.

Facts are facts. There’s no need for the song and dance.

And yet, with every bump in the road which the sport of horse racing had to traverse this year, the excuses grew more fervent.

Trainers around the country winning at alarmingly high percentages? They get the best bloodstock.

Horses testing positive for performance enhancing substances? Food contamination.

Injuries to horses during race meetings? Fluke.

The issue at hand is not whether any or all of these explanations are true, but the fact that we as a community are so afraid to face these questions that we respond by giving  a benign explanation and sweeping the mess under the rug.

“Talking about sad or negative things doesn’t bring new fans to the sport” is a popular response, but one that in today’s digital age certainly isn’t true. With websites and features dedicated to the cruelties of horse racing or the dark side of gambling easily accessible on the internet, the gig is up.

The questions are being asked and accusations are being made by the sport’s customers and onlookers. The party line, which essentially tells us to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” is not only insulting, but also disregards actual opportunities to grow racing’s fanbase through education.

Have there been cases of trainers giving their horses performance enhancing substances? Yes, but strides have been made in recent years to create stricter testing, including out-of-competition testing for Breeders’ Cup horses.

Do some tracks raise the takeout on their wagers? Yes, but in America we have nearly a hundred racing facilities, so you can choose to wager on which product best suits your needs.

Do people become addicted to gambling? Unfortunately, yes, but there are programs in place to aid those who are struggling.

What’s good about horse racing, you say?

Watching some of the most athletic individuals in the world.

The sense of community and excitement you feel in the stands when you and the people sitting behind you that you met five minutes ago hit a winner together.

The thrill of an epic stretch dual or a dominating ten-length victory.

The intellectual puzzle analyzing the races brings to the table.

Witnessing fairytale stories become reality in only two minutes’ time.

Spending a day out at the track, making friends and eating lunch off the top of a trash can as you run from the paddock to the starting gate between races...okay, maybe that one is just me.

Nevertheless, there are endless reasons why each and every person who loves, is a fan of or wagers on horse racing. None of those reasons involve holding an oblivious attitude towards negative aspects of the sport.

It’s time to bring in Toto, open up that curtain and see that horse racing is facing the same pressures as every major sport around the world. It’s when we admit the flaws and vocalize the steps that we are already making toward change  that we’ll take the sport from a leftover of America’s past to a living game poised to garner new fans in the future.

Thanks to Nicolle Neulist for grammatical edits. Her work can be found at Blinkers Off.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Slow Into Stride

Five months ago, Arrogate -- a son of prolific stallion Unbridled’s Song -- had the world at his feet. He’d taken the summer’s marquee race for three-year-olds in record time, twice beaten champion California Chrome in Grade 1 company and had just completed a dramatic last to first drubbing abroad in Dubai. Now, following two consecutive losses, the calls for his retirement are stunningly loud.

“He’s not the same horse,” some say.

“It’s the dreaded Dubai curse,” yell others.

While it’s been shown on many an occasion the “Dubai curse” -- or the perception that horses who travel to the Dubai World Cup meeting underperform upon returning stateside -- is a complete farce, Arrogate’s run in Dubai does shed some light on his performances of late.

The narrative of Arrogate’s Dubai World Cup victory revolved around him missing the start. Upon review, however, Arrogate didn’t actually break all that badly, but it was his inability to muster any sort of speed after the break which left him out the back. In fact, Furia Cruzada to his inside broke slightly worse than the big grey and zipped past him like he was standing still, while Keen Ice -- a horse not exactly known for his gate speed -- to his outside was able to cross in front of him without too much effort. Arrogate was hampered as a result, but based on the gate speed he displayed in races like the Travers and Pegasus World Cup Invitational, he should have been able to maintain his position between them without much fret.

Arrogate was able to overcome that tactical disadvantage to win in Dubai, a race which -- Gun Runner aside -- featured opposition well below the level of the biggest US G1s. While Gun Runner has comfortably won both of his races since the Dubai World Cup, he has yet to win over the 10-furlong trip they traversed that day; Gun Runner not truly seeing out that distance over what is a testing surface at Meydan is very much a possibility.

Down to G2 level in the San Diego Handicap, Arrogate -- a horse who has been near the lead in the bulk of his races at the highest level -- found himself beaten for speed once again. While better overall in the Pacific Classic, Arrogate was being urged before they reached the ½-mile pole despite a dawdling early tempo.

In fact, even removing the aberration that was Arrogate’s troubled start in the Dubai World Cup, in his five other attempts in graded stakes company, his first quarter times have starkly slowed.


Of course, there are differences in times between surfaces, but what remains clear in his American races is that he is producing slower first quarter times than he did 12 months ago and he’s doing so in races which are being run at a slower early tempo than ever before. It’s a double whammy of sorts in that he’s suddenly beaten for speed in the early stages of his races and is simultaneously catching races which on tempo alone would favor leaders.

This was more apparent than ever in the Pacific Classic when he was urged mightily by Mike Smith out of the gate and still could not wrest the lead from Collected, who by no means was going fast for the level. The tactics were sound -- try to get him to the lead. When you have the superior stayer in the field by a long way, the most suitable tactic is nearly always to ping the horse out in front and never look back. Unfortunately for Arrogate, his large frame and stride have left him seemingly unable to do that these days.  

Arrogate has never been the fastest horse per se, but he produces much more consistent sectionals than his peers. Below is the peak speed (in miles per hour) reached in each of his runs to date, with those runs in which his top speed was the fastest (or joint fastest) in the field highlighted:

Peak Speed
4/17 Maiden (LRC)
6/5 Maiden (SA)
6/24 Allowance (SA)
8/4 Allowance (DMR)
Travers (SAR)
Breeders' Cup Classic (SA)
Pegasus World Cup (GP)
Dubai World Cup (MEYDAN)
TVG San Diego (DMR)
TVG Pacific Classic (DMR)

Rarely -- especially in the races thought to be among the best of his career -- has Arrogate reached the fastest peak speed of the field. Instead, the difference between Arrogate’s top speed and his average speed has historically been much less than his peers. In the Dubai World Cup, for example, Arrogate’s peak speed was over two miles per hour slower than top rival Gun Runner. In the final 1/16th of the race, however, Arrogate was averaging only 1.24 mph off his peak speed of 41 mph whereas Gun Runner was averaging 5.7 mph off of his peak speed of 43 mph. In the world of dirt routes, which is known for races finishing far more slowly than they begin, Arrogate’s ability to merely stay on at the end of his races has earned him several victories.

On some level, he’s similar to former Hong Kong galloper Designs On Rome. Named horse of the year during his illustrious career, the son of Holy Roman Emperor was brilliant when everything went his way as he -- similarly to Arrogate -- was the king of outstaying his middle distance counterparts. Routinely struggling to keep up in the early stages of his races, Designs On Rome regularly had to be ridden in patches mid-race in order to maintain his focus. He was best suited by races which were run at a fast early-slow middle tempo as to soften up the leaders and allow him to swoop around a compact field.

Nobody will argue that the Arrogate we saw in the Pacific Classic performed at the same level that he did at his peak, but could the answer be that at this stage of his career, Arrogate has simply become a more dour individual who would be better suited by further or at the very least by a quicker tempo which would turn the race into a true stamina test?

These horses aren’t machines, as they say, and even Arrogate and his lofty speed figures are no exception. He may not be one of “the greats” -- not a Dr Fager who set the dirt mile record while carrying 132 lbs or Seattle Slew winning against top flight competition following a life-threatening physical setback. When all the cylinders are firing, there’s a brilliance about Arrogate which is unmatched by any other horse in America. Unfortunately these days, without his past gate speed on his side, it appears he’ll need everything to go his way in running in order for us to see the best of him again.