Are Racehorses Getting Faster- Part One -- 12 November 2003 -- Jerry Brown
I'll be going into the question of the improvement of the horses themselves in another post, but one of the obvious issues becomes whether the pure times of race can be used as a measuring device. With that in mind, I just had another conversation with NYRA track superintendent Jerry Porcelli, and I want to get this stuff out there while it is still fresh in my head. The implications are pretty obvious.
1- When Secretariat was running, the cushion at NYRA tracks was between 2 3/4 and 3 1/4 inch. It is now about 4 inches.
2-- Terry Meyocks had a policy of keeping the track slow-- he felt a slower track was a safer track. To this end Jerry is constantly monitoring track speed-- on a day to day basis he keeps an eye on the times of races, and adjusts track speed by adding or subtracting dirt, changing the percentage of sand (which slows the track down), and controlling the amount of water, which speeds it up.
3-- He also monitors the track (and speed) RACE TO RACE, DAILY. He has an office on the roof at Aqueduct, and adjusts the amount of water being added between races by noting the times of the races, the color of the track (!), and how much dirt is on the horses when they come back from the races.
4-- There was a day Jerry was out sick, and miscommunication resulted in less cushion being put down than he wanted. Najran ran the 1:32 mile that day.
5-- He was out at SA for the Breeder's Cup a couple of weeks ago. I mentioned I had the track getting faster after the first few races Thursday to Saturday, and he said he was not surprised-- they dug up the track each day before the first race, then watered it and "rolled" it between races, meaning the track would have to "tighten up" as the day went on.
Jerry also confirmed a statement he made in an earlier conversation with me that the tracks today have a higher percentage of sand in them than they used to-- the theory being to make them slower and therefore safer (he isn't sure it does make them safer, by the way), and more importantly, so that they dry faster. This means they get faster with moisture (think of the beach, and how the ground is firmer near the water), but also means that in general they are slower when dry (fast tracks) than the higher clay content tracks that preceded them. Jerry said the higher sand track has been in effect since at least 1995, but he would check the logs to see if he could find out exactly when it started.
1- This is a fascinating subject that is very sophisticated, yet one even serious handicappers know virtually nothing about. Charlie Moran did an interview with Porcelli that ran in the Saratoga Special this Summer and which we posted here, but someone should really do a very extensive article on this. Charlie, you listening?
2-- Directly to the subject at hand-- you can't use raw times to compare horses from different generations, any more than you can use raw times to compare horses who are running at different tracks.
3-- Ahem. While none of this PROVES that tracks change speed day to day or race to race, it proves conclusively that ASSUMPTIONS that tracks stay at the same speed race to race, let alone day to day, are pure fantasy. Using those assumptions to build a figure data base is dogmatic nonsense.
For those who want to know more on this subject-- my post on the first conversation with Porcelli can be found in the archives under "The Two Sides Of The House I Can See Are White", 2/25/03 (interesting stuff on percentage of moisture content, and how it is measured). "Jerry Porcelli Interview", 7/30/03, has Charlie Moran's piece from the Saratoga Special.