Sunday, January 31, 2010

SUNSHINE MILLIONS RECAP: Dirt vs. Synthetic Dichotomy In Full Effect


Bill Finley’s synthetic track expose’ GROUND CONTROL in Thoroughbred Daily News was a thorough review on the subject but not a conclusive indictment or endorsement on the manufactured surfaces from the horse racing community as a whole. This is not a criticism of the article; I’m merely pointing out that there are less opinions in the gray area about the topic. Personally, I've gone back and forth on the subject many times. I'm coming to the conclusion that the artificial surfaces are giving this part-time horse player (but full-time fan of horse racing) with outside-the-box opinions a chance to be competitive with the professional players.

Saturday’s 7th Sunshine Millions results likely polarized supporters or detractors of synthetics even further.


At Gulfstream Park, a fast dirt main track was featured in two of the three Sunshine Millions races. The Sunshine Millions Sprint was won in thrilling fashion by even-money favorite THIS ONE’S FOR PHIL who survived by a nose over 9-5 second choice PASHITO THE CHE. After the first ¼ mile, there were only two horses in this match race disguised as a seven horse field. The pair raced at each other’s throatlatch for the final 5/16 mile or so stopping the clock in 1:08.81. It was 10 ½ lengths to the clunk-up 3rd place finisher.

The next race was the Sunshine Millions Distaff where the 1-2-3-4 finishers were 3-1-9-2 after a ½ mile against salty splits for the level (:23.49, :46.83, 1:10.91). As a student of race shapes, going in I believed that this event was begging to be won by a horse from off the pace. SWEET REPENT, the 8-5 favorite and a last-out G.3 winner by a nose over 4th place pace player AMAZING, was happy to oblige. However, even she was only two lengths off the fast pace which limited her late energy to a relatively pokey :37.95 for the final 3 furlongs while runner-up JESSICA IS BACK was breathing fire with a final 3f in :39.30.

Speed/pace-oriented horse players and/or conditioners with quarter-horse training tendencies likely find these results acceptable. Fast dirt tracks make the majority of results predictable: find the speed.

The GP stakes results for January:
5th Hal’s Hope(G.3) QUALITY ROAD 2-5 wire/wire
9th Old Hat(G.3)* RICHIEGIRLGONEWILD 31-1 wire/wire
9th Sugar Swirl(G.3)* PRETTY PROLIFIC 5-1 stretch run
9th Mr. Prospector(G.3)*CUSTOM FOR CARLOS 1-1 presser
9th Spectacular Bid* A LITTLE WARM 5-1 stalker
10th Ft. Lauderdale** DUKE OF MISCHIEF 5-1 stalker
17th Sweetest Chant SASSY IMAGE 3-5 stalker
23rd Holy Bull(G.3) WINSLOW HOMER 7-2 stalker
30th SunMil Distaff SWEET REPENT 8-5 stalker
30th SunMil Sprint THIS ONE’S FOR PHIL 1-1 stalker/presser

Historically, dirt race tracks have allowed horses of varying class to ride their early pace and momentum to many wins. The GP stakes races bear that out in spades. Winners needed to be within 3 lengths or less from the leader to have any chance to win. Also, the winners were well-supported with the median winning odds of 8-5. Toss the low and high priced winners from this small sample and the average win odds are 5-2 with a 50% favorites winning percentage. The more glaring statistic is that from the five races on a “fast” track, four were won by the favorite and the average win odds was a prohibitive 7-5. For value hunting weekend warriors like me, the Sunshine Millions versions of the Sprint and Distaff were unplayable races. I considered picking a winner in them only because they’re mandatory for contest purposes like the “for fun” events at THE KNIGHT SKY blog. Note the goose eggs posted by me in the Gulfstream Park races, including “bad action” in the turf event.


If "they" could “The Dinnies”, as author/ breeder/ owner Jim Squires (breeder of MONARCHOS) calls the game’s elite (ie. the Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps family and others in horse racing’s “ruling establishment”) in his book HEADLESS HORSEMEN, would jettison the perceived middle and lower class in horse racing. That includes the collective downturned noses when California racing is brought up in Kentucky. Truth be told, they’d probably do away with horseplayers of all kind if not for the game’s reliance on handle to feed purse structures.

D. Wayne Lukas, once a California-based “rebel” at the apex of his career, has ingratiated himself among the Kentucky-based “Dinnies” in more recent, halcyon years of his stable. Lukas' emphasis on the Breeders' Cup juvenile races since it's inception has almost single-handedly altered the breeding industry focus that once revered "classic" bloodlines and stamina. Want to point to a reason why there hasn't been a Triple Crown winner for decades? Thank Lukas and the major auctions who emphasized precocity and speed that resulted in THE GREEN MONKEY, who was a Kentucky Derby contender for about 1/8 mile at a pre-auction breeze.

The Finley article provides us a quote from Lukas which is the ideal segue to the Santa Anita Sunshine Millions main track events, “Artificial surfaces are too unpredictable. It’s not a good race track. It makes good horses average and average horses good.” I guess that's why Cal-breds went 1st/3rd in both main track events at Santa Anita Park but only one Cal-bred bothered to ship to Florida and finished unplaced on the dirt. Or, can the quote be read as Lukas’ lobbying for Kentucky breeding and sales organizations, the state where he lives and bases his operation?

I say, “Thank goodness the artificial surfaces are too unpredictable. For me, it’s a good race track. It makes novice players average, with the potential to be good, and makes good players average.” The challenges that different synthetic tracks present players of varying ability levels the playing field significantly for a part-time, amateur player like me. The same holds true for trainers that can change with the times.


Results of horse races run on synthetic main tracks were supposed to provide bigger fields and parity…when they’re right. Finishes where multiple runners would be separated by the proverbial “blanket” at the finish line were expected to be the norm as opposed to the strung out fields that are produced by dirt tracks around the country.

The average winning odds of stakes races run at Santa Anita’s winter meeting thus far were just 3 cents shy of 4-1 after 1-5 CONVEYANCE and 29-1 PRETTY UNUSUAL were eliminated with a median odds of 3-1 (recall GP’s median was 8-5). The average distance from the winner to 4th place was a competitive 3 ½ lengths (GP’s stakes margin to 4th was 5 ¾ lengths).

The SA results Dec ‘09/Jan ’10:
Dec. 26th Malibu(G.1) M ONE RIFLE 7-1 wire/wire
Dec. 26th La Brea(G.1) EVITA ARGENTINA 4-1 stretch run
Dec. 26th Cal Breeders Ch. (male) CARACORTADO 2-1 stalker
Dec. 27th Cal Breeders Ch. (female) EVENING JEWEL 3-1 presser
Jan. 3rd Kalookan Queen FREE FLYING SOUL 4-5 presser
Jan. 9th San Pasqual(G.3) NEKO BAY 5-1 stretch run
Jan. 9th Paseana ST. TRINIANS 9-5 stalker
Jan. 10th Santa Ysabel(G.3) CRISP 7-2 stretch run
Jan. 16th Santa Ynez(G.2) AMEN HALLELUJAH 3-1 stalker
Jan. 16th San Fernando(G.2) PAPA CLEM 3-2 presser
Jan. 16th San Rafael(G.3) CONVEYANCE 1-5 pace set/press
Jan. 17th El Encino(G.2) PRETTY UNUSUAL 29-1 stretch run
Jan. 23rd Palos Verdes(G.2) KINSALE KING 9-1 presser
Jan. 30th Sun Mil Classic BOLD CHIEFTAN 5-1 stretch run
Jan. 30th Sun Mil F&M Sprint QUISISANA 6-1 stalker

The first main track race at Santa Anita on Saturday was the Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Sprint, featuring a field of 13 runners in what radio show hosts and handicappers in California called the best betting race in the six race sequence. QUISISANA ($15.00) stalked the pace in mid-pack through the opening ¼ mile, made steady progress while racing wide on the turn, and had enough momentum to hold off surging 3-1 favorite DUBAI MAJESTY. I was off the schneid at a very nice mutual.

If this race had been run on a dirt surface, the field would not have been as large. MISS McCALL, the 2-1 favorite, would have been more like 3-2 and I believe she would have rode the momentum of that 21.44 and :43.75 pace to a easy five length win instead of a gritty 4th place finish. I will be keenly watching her to show up in a graded stakes event on a dirt track at some point this year.

Runner-up DUBAI MAJESTY earned $40,000 and nearly took down the $110,000 first prize. If not for the synthetics and the purse, Bret Calhoun would likely have kept her in the east for the Hurricane Bertie (G.3, only $125,000) on February 13. In that event, DUBAI MAJESTY could have faced open company for a much lower purse instead of only Cal-bred or Florida-bred fillies and mares for nearly twice the money.

The final Sunshine Millions main track event was the Classic where Cal-bred veteran BOLD CHIEFTAN ($12.20) overcame traffic trouble in the stretch to hold off Canadian synthetic specialist PALLADIO by a neck. The runner-up was my pick and the 6-1 fourth choice, bet down from the 30-1 morning line I’d hoped would send me over-the-top. If not for the synthetic main track PALLADIO would have stayed in Canada, “over-the-top” turf horse THE USUAL Q.T. would not have taken so much money to start at 1-1, and WICKED STYLE would not have shipped and taken money as the 5-1 co-third choice.

If this race were run at Gulfstream Park ENRICHED, LAVA MAN’s short-fused little brother, would have had a better chance at carrying his :23.31, :46.77, 1:10.91 pace to a win. In fact, he’s my very early future book pick for the 2011 Sunshine Millions Classic which will switch to Florida next year.

Oh by the way, yours truly found his way atop the Santa Anita version of The Knight Sky blog's Sunshine Millions contest after his Gulfstream Park goose eggs.


While there was a rush to judgment in California when past-CHRB director Richard Shapiro mandated synthetic tracks, there should not be a similar knee-jerk response to abandon them altogether now that they're here. There are trainers complaining of increased hind end injuries which are lowering the available horse populations at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar. While the race tracks are being fine-tuned, why can’t trainers adjust their methods of conditioning away from the speed-crazy historical perception of California racing to the stamina-enhancing surface their horses are currently racing on?

As Finley’s article noted, there are more than a few favorable opinions of them. I leave you with sunny synthetic quotes from respected Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, he of the four Breeders’ Cup wins in 2003 including three on the old traditional dirt track: “My enthusiasm and support is based on the thought that, if we get the kinks out of them, then maybe we’re going to have something better than we’ve ever had.”

Mandella went on to say, “There is still learning going on, and there is a window of opportunity where you might end up with something that is consisitently really good. I think we worked the dirt all we could. I don’t know that we’re ever going to get a dirt track to be any better than the type of tracks we have always had. This is our chance to get out of the dungeon and see some light when it comes to the future.”

A Hall of Fame trainer in business since 1976 is willing to adjust for the greater good of the game. Why can’t the rest of horse racing do the same?


The_Knight_Sky said...

Amateurcapper wrote:

While there was a rush to judgment in California when past-CHRB director Richard Shapiro mandated synthetic tracks, there should not be a similar knee-jerk response to abandon them altogether now that they're here.


The bottom line is that the tracks will be forced to change in the future. The serious horseplayers will not support it. The issue of soft-tissue injuries will continue to prevent the horses from racing to their maximum capabilities and prevent the promised full fields from ever occurring. Thirdly, main track championships are won on a dirt track.

Unless you're aligned with Martin Collins enterprises and need to show off polytrack, every racetrack is going to be forced to make that change by the wagering public. The people have spoken.

The question remains...
who will pay for this grandiose mistake?

Will it be the bettors in the way of higher takeout rates? That would be yet another nail in racing's coffin don't you think?

Steve Munday said...

You should be commended for framing the issue and doing a lot of homework in this area.

And while it's true that bettors, generally at least, hate wagering on synthetic tracks; ones that have cracked the code are getting some juicy payouts.

Incidentally, the synth has led to some nice payouts on the dirt as well. Synth champion She Be Wild was a huge underlay on God's very own at GP yesterday. Those who figured she might not handle it well were rewarded handsomely; but I don't wanna brag :)

I thought Mandella's comments were interesting. I remember the days when SoCal tracks where dragstrips and early speed ruled and carried much further than the heavier east coast tracks. I never found betting socal tracks all that interesting back then, so maybe that's what Mandella was getting at?

As for me, I play whatever race or track I think I have an edge, or a good feel for at least. So I'm not a synth hater in general.

My biggest problem w/ synth was the decision by BC Ltd to schedule 2 consecutive BCs at OSA on a surface that was untested and turned out to have a strong bias against dirt speed. As a handicapper, this is information to take advantage of, or avoid. As a fan of the sport, I was disappointed (even a little angered) that there were no dirt races in the BC for two years running.

Regardless of my feelings, the most important factor IMO is the safety of horse & humans on the track. Right now, the jury's still out and it'd be nice to see more rigorous and in-depth analysis before the next knee jerk reaction. Plus, the track is only one component of equine injuries - there's breeding practices, training regimen, medication, & who knows what else.

Thanks for the thought provoking article.

Steve Munday said...

Oh by the way, congrats on winning The_Knight_Sky racing blog's $2 ATB on the Sunshine Millions at Santa Anita. I was debating between Ms McCall and Quisiana. I blew it and you got it right. Good job!

Amateurcapper said...


I see your point about the "whales" dictating the terms. Still, I have heard more than a few trainers say that horses will get hurt running on cotton balls. Last I checked, dirt is harder than cotton balls.

I think that many trainers can choose to change their training tactics on any surface. Especially on synthetics, training for speed isn't healthy for the horses. They fatigue, then they lose their action, take a misstep...injury, minor or catastrophic.

The trainers and the jockeys as a whole haven't changed their mindset...they let their horses roll in the a.m. and roll in the p.m. Unintentional culling by attrition...then they cry that their horses are at a layup more time than they're at the track. IMO, that's the real reason there's a horse shortage.

As for your third point, what would easterners say if New York, all of Kentucky, and/or Florida had a synthetic mandate? Would they say that the only real champions over the last two years could have come out of California? I'm thinking that the east coast bias would have swayed the "championship" criteria in favor of synthetics.

Did you read the Finley article...I'm not so sure the industry is willing to give in so fast on the synthetic thing. Kee, TP and Dmr for sure won't for the reason you stated. GG and Pid will keep Tapeta, no doubt. So that's 5 tracks staying synth. I wouldn't be surprised to see SA go Tapeta before going dirt...just a feeling I have considering the Breeders' Cup liked the idea of synthetics two years straight and the "Blue Team" (ie. Godolphin) has a bigger say in the industry than anyone wants to admit. They went away from nearly identical main used @ CD to Tapeta. Want to increase the horse population...ingratiate yourself to Sheikh Mohammed and he'll ship his massive 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 10th strings out of Dubai.

If the change could happen the way you see it, won't that be a reason for the "whales" to find a way to put up with synth? If they have to pay for the surface, why not buy SA outright? I heard that was a very real possibility and then, remarkably, Magna dug out of their hole...things that make you go "hmmm".

Thanks as always for the thought-provoking comments!

Amateurcapper said...


Thanks for the kind words.

You said it all:

"Plus, the track is only one component of equine injuries - there's breeding practices, training regimen, medication, & who knows what else."

So you took BICKERSON's on the synth/dirt angle?

Question: Is betting GP this meeting any more interesting than it was betting SA?

RE: BC x 2 years...recall that the second year was supposed to go to Belmont Park, but the NYRA question mark in 2008 was reason to find another home. BC also "owed" SA and Oak Tree for their too-high prices on tickets in '08 that kept me and other horse racing fans in SoCal at home. '09 was a "do-over", thanks to NYRA.

Mandella won three Breeders' Cups on those "drag strips"...the dude's a hay, oats, water conditioner of the Charlie Whittingham order, so when he speaks I listen long and hard.

RE: SunMil @ SA
Thanks, it was a good fight. The T_K_S group is a salty lot and I feel proud to have been able to come out on top three times already. I'm thinking about the NHC this year if I can score a berth through a free online contest. The T_K_S contests are great practice.

Lastly, watch MS McCALL... the way she held so stubbornly after putting away the other speed, she'll air on dirt. Of that I'm certain! Well, I'm pretty sure ;-)!!!

Steve Munday said...

I liked Bickerson's on the cut-back, I think she's a one-turn 7f to a mile horse. Getting almost 10-1 was helped by She Be Wild who crushed on synth but was untested on dirt. But you're right, GP is reminiscent of SA's pre-Cushion/Pro-ride days. The turf course too.

Hope you give it a go trying to make the NHC XII field - would be a tremendous achievement.

I'm all in favor of an T_K_S "cyberbucks" contests becoming a NHC qualifying event!

railrunner said...

Wow, you really do your homework. This is very in-depth, I enjoyed reading it a lot (you're making the rest of us look bad!). (:

Amateurcapper said...


Considering how speed's been holding so well at GP, do you think QUALITY ROAD is a slam dunk in the Donn??? No gimmes in a G.1...I'm suspecting he'll be challenged severely by PAST THE POINT for the first 3/4.

That said his patient, cruising Florida Derby win in 1:47 3/5 is still firmly in my memory bank. If he's stronger at 4 than at three, we could see a very, very VERY special performance on Saturday.

Amateurcapper said...


Thanks for taking the time to read my posts...thanks also for those kind comments. I'm just keeping myself, and hopefully others, entertained for a few minutes.

Let me see what you've got up.

onhertoes said...

Great article AmCap! As for synthetics, I am in favor of them. I agree that if breeders returned to breeding for stamina, there would be fewer breakdowns and more horses that could run well on synthetics. I have read that Europe has fewer breakdowns than the U.S. and they primarily run on synthetics or grass. Also, people like to say that it's natural for horses to run on dirt. I guess by that they mean that U.S. horses have been bred for it, because for horses in general I would think the natural surface would be grass. It can't be good for horses legs to run on dirt surfaces like CD which are as hard as a tabletop as Randy Moss puts it. According to Presque Isle Downs, since they've switched to Tapeta they have had much fewer breakdowns. In fact in the July/August 2009 issue of The Horse Player Magazine it states that during their 2008 season only 4 runners out of 5,000 suffered catastrophic breakdowns. One more point, isn't it the case that many of the farms have synthetic training tracks?

I just want to add that I have not thoroughly researched this as you have, but I would very much like to in the future and post it on my blog after I have had the time to research the subject thoroughly.


Power Cap said...

Nice article "AmCap"(can I call you that?) that was well reserched.

The question is not synthetic or dirt but meticulously maintained or poorly maintained. Comparing 60 year old dirt surfaces to brand spanking new synthetic tracks is not really a fair comparison.

If the synthetic track is not maintained it is a sure thing to loose it's cushioning properties and become a dangerous surface over time. A brand new dirt surface or one that is well-maintained is not dangerous. It took the wear and tear of time and a lack of care to make many dirt surfaces unsafe.

What we have here is a maintenance issue being framed as a surface problem. There is more money in new surfaces than proper maintenance or existing surfaces.

As a substitute for proper maintenance technology was brought in to relieve these tracks of their track maintenance issues. As these synthetic tracks age the maintenance issues will return in spades along with the breakdowns and jockey injuries.