Jessica Chapel addresses DRF’s clear anti-synthetic stance

34 thoughts on “Jessica Chapel addresses DRF’s clear anti-synthetic stance”

  1. While I understand how it is possible for Jessica Chapel to come to her conlusion that employees of DRF might be against synthetic surfaces because of the commercial implications of the company’s products, I think that conspiracy theories of this kind that involve individual members of the press never hold water, unless they are working for Rupert Murdoch.

    Can she not just take at face value the fact that horseplayers and handicappers do not like synthetics because these tracks cannot be analyzed as well as dirt surfaces?

    Other than the drug-fueled horses that were sent postward by cheating trainers in Southern California a few years ago, nothing has driven away horseplayers faster than the implementation of synthetic surfaces.

  2. Bravo to JC and you as well Sid.

    If you are going to read something in the drf you can be sure, somewhere, at some point, a shot at synth will be in there.

    New York cappers, old time handicappers and a good deal of the old time press do not even for a moment look at the stats on these surfaces – they just play a few races and throw up their hands. Then they report that they do not like them. It is pandemic. The world is flat, and that’s the end of it for some people.


    What part of synthetic surfaces is hard to handicap compared to dirt anyway? Have some of these people even tried? Or do they just spit out the DRF doctrine? Is getting a horse out of the gate and going as fast as he/she can and ending the race with a cheap last sixteenth on his/her hands and knees a must for handicappers and this sport?

    Thank god turf was not just invented. The change would make people riot worse than changing a retirement age in France.

    What is so difficult about Keeneland, anyway? Is it the 37.7% win percentage for chalk, with a 0.99 ROI in sprints? How is that tough?

    Is it the last race bris fig with a 24.8% win percentage yielding a profit of almost 1%? How is that “hard to analyze”?

    Is it Bris Prime Power clicking through at 27.7% at breakeven with a rebate; and with a higher impact value than on dirt? How is that hard to analyze?

    I thought they were supposed to be hard to cap?

    There is so much misinformation on these surfaces and the bottom line for me is simple:

    Horse racing hates change.

    Our demo’s are over 50. People have been doing this for 50 years. They do not want change of any sort. Just like we saw in the UK when the book’s switched to decimal odds – people hated it because it was a change. Meanwhile, 3 million customers on betfair, 80% whom are under 50 would not know a 13 to 7 from a can of yams.

    Until we stop letting the old guard rule – like the DRF and the bulk of their handicappers with their old dirt products – we will not get ahead in racing. Just because we did something in 1955 and people remember it, does not mean that we should revert back to 1955.

    We need vision and leadership in racing in all facets. We clearly won’t find that from the DRF or much of the old guard handicappers.

    Rant over 🙂


  3. First of all, as Barry correctly notes, it is ridiculous to argue that there is some grand conspiracy against synthetic surfaces, as there isn’t a shred of evidence to support such an argument.

    Secondly, synthetic surfaces are, in the U.S., intrinsically disruptive, and not only to handicappers, let alone those who use the racing form and Beyer speed figures. They are deeply disruptive for breeders and owners as well (need I elaborate?).

    That, of course, doesn’t mean that that they are intrinsically bad, nor necessarily a long-term negative for the industry. But is does underscore that Ms. Chapel’s posts are both superficial and misleading – at best.

    There is no evidence that synthetic surfaces are significantly safer than well-maintained, modern (i.e. up-to-date) dirt tracks. It is also the clearly the case that California rushed into the implementation of such surfaces, which didn’t help matters. But the main problem is that racing in the U.S. has suffered badly over the past several decades due to the fractured nature of the industry. Competing jurisdictions; competing tracks; competing special interest groups; lack of cohesion in the racing calendar; differing medication rules from track to track; etc., etc., etc. So fracturing the long-standing, fundamental two surface basis of the American game by introducing a third surface was hardly a recipe for success.

  4. You and Jessica both worked at DRF long enough to know that no one tells our columnists and bloggers what to think or write. DRF does not have an institutional “slant” on issues — we have a variety of journalists who express their individual opinions in appropriate commentary forums. For you to speculate that those among them who disagree with your personal opinions about synthetic racing surfaces are driven by corrupt self-interest is completely untrue, unfounded and unfair.

  5. Steve:

    First off, thanks for the comment. Second, fyi, I am not a proponent of synthetic tracks and have never advocated them. Matter of fact, just tweeted this recently about synthetics vis-a-vis artificial bb fields: “@stu108 been saying same about field turf, on which we play bb; little rubber particles get into body.can’t be great…”

    Therefore, when you say “For you to speculate that those among them who disagree with your personal opinions about synthetic racing surfaces…” you are WAY off the mark, as nowhere in this post do I have a personal opinion that I endorse synthetics. I have, however, accepted they exist, but in your haste to reply you inferred incorrectly that I was a proponent of synthetics. Please re-read the post and understand that this is not about me advocating synthetics.

    Second, I do know that neither you nor any of your editorial leadership would tell “our columnists and bloggers what to think or write.” I don’t think such an organized “conspiracy” exists, but that doesn’t mean that what Jessica wrote—and what others feel about DRF’s slant—isn’t true. When you and other top columnists express your opinions in print and by word of mouth, it’s only natural for this to “trickle down” through the organization to other journalists and handicappers, and this overall effect is what Jessica commented on.

    Like it or not, Steve, there is a feeling out there that DRF DOES have a “slant” against synthetics, and your protestations to the contrary—though appreciated—don’t change that view. More balance of viewpoints might.

  6. I think we should ask Juan Williams about this after NPR canned him. He said something not in line with the the “NPR slant” and off he went, treated like a second hand slave dismissed back to the fields.

  7. Tinky, you make a great point about breeders and speed figures. I hope you read my complete post, as that’s something I mention.

    In reply to Barry and Steve, there’s no conspiracy theory. No memos have to be written, no directives issued, for a group of like-minded people with similar perspectives to respond to a situation — such as the appearance of synthetic surfaces on the racing landscape — in such a way that their very individual opinions add up to the appearance of an institutional bias.

    Steve, I’m struck by your use of the phrase “corrupt self-interest,” which is not one that I used. Why the assumption that self-interest is necessarily corrupt? Or that — and I take this from the tone of your comment — to hold opinions informed or influenced by your interests is necessarily lacking in intellectual integrity? I don’t argue either. If that’s what leads you to take umbrage, then you’ve missed my point.

    PTP, thanks.

  8. Interesting dialogue on media. Someone mentioned Fox News. While I’m sure some of their on-air people are told what the party line, it’s a better bet that Fox News intentionally hires people who they know are in step with the party line. (We can say the same about MSNBC.)

    Does that happen at DRF or other media companies where editors/publishers may tend to hire people they like and/or share the same views with? Probably. Is it intentional? Probably not.

    I doubt there’s any conspiracy against synthetic tracks at DRF, but I wouldn’t be surprised that anyone there who doesn’t see plastic as the devil is somewhat intimidated by those who do.

  9. Jessica: You wrote that DRF’s supposed “synthetics antipathy” is “driven to some extent” by “a sense of threat…to selling papers.” I don’t know how to read that other than an allegation that our writers adopt their positions not out of their true beliefs but in order to help the company sell more papers, which would indeed be corrupt if it were true. It’s not, and the premise behind the suggestion is utterly specious: We do not sell more or less papers based on any track’s choice of racing surface.

  10. Not only is the notion that the DRF systematically coordinates a particular stance on synthetics fanciful, but, as I was attempting to point out above, it distracts from very real and important questions relating to the use of such surfaces in the U.S.

    It is not a black and white issue, but a strong case could be made that such surfaces have been adopted both rashly, and too rapidly. This case has nothing to do with making accurate speed figures, selling more papers, nor anything at all to do with the DRF or broader media serving the industry.

  11. Yes, Steve, you can read that excerpt as an allegation “that our writers adopt their positions not out of their true beliefs but in order to help the company sell more papers, which would indeed be corrupt if it were true,” if you purposefully ignore the words you’ve replaced with ellipses and the paragraphs I wrote preceding.

    Or maybe I didn’t make my argument well — that’s definitely possible — so let me try again. Basically, what I tried to say in the original post was that American dirt racing has been radically reshaped by the success of speed figures. Synthetics threatened what has been a great, and profitable, run for handicappers, horsemen, breeders, and yes, data providers such as DRF.

    No, I don’t think DRF writers are altering their opinions explicitly to bolster company sales, but I can believe that DRF writers — faced with having to change their long-standing ways of thinking about racing and handicapping horses, and, some of them, such as Beyer, possible commercial losses as a result of synthetic disruption — would be resistant to change and that part of that resistance would have to do with keeping the paper and its products relevant and viable (“selling papers”), especially in this era of upheaval and transformation for all kinds of media.

  12. I don’t get it. Is there some notion that synthetic players are using dart boards and the selections of the local 25c rag to get their picks?

    First of all, the DRF has a lot more information than the speed figure. Goes without saying.

    Even if the ‘bias’ is true, it’s silly to claim it has something to do with sales of the paper.

  13. John,

    Beyer freelances for the Washington Post, while DRF simply reprints his columns and has a contract with him to use his figures.

    Case closed.

  14. Jessica you write, ” Synthetics threatened what has been a great, and profitable, run for handicappers, horsemen, breeders, and yes, data providers such as DRF”

    I don’t know about the data providers, but an overwhelming majority of horsemen, breeders, and horseplayers have never really had a “profitable run”. You may hear about the rare exception to the rule who somehow ekes a profit out of this industry, but the smarter ones eventually chalk the whole experience up to a fun expensive hobby! Definitely a tough business on all sides.

  15. Speed figures, both commercial and private, have been around before the 20th century.

    I would agree that everybody and his mother has tried to capitalize on the commercial value of figures, including BRIS and Equibase.

    But let me get this straight…Jessica, are you saying that speed figures don’t work on synthetics? If this is the case, which I firmly believe it is, then what does this tell one about the difficulty of trying to handicap winners on these surfaces?

    I own one of the world’s most proficient steeds on man-made surfaces. He is one of those rare horses that has the ability to actually get into a good rhythm on surfaces that tend not to allow the beauty of movement that one usually only seems on dirt.

    However, I would love to see dirt replace synthetic surfaces for racing. I think they are fine for training, but suggest they are a detriment to horses and the breed if they ever proliferate and replace dirt.

    What I cannot stand is watching a crooked-legged horse flailing away and pummeling the ground, yet winning. If we breed to stallions that run like this we will accelerate the demise of our breed even more rapidly than we have under the influence of crass commercialism.

    Horsemen and handicappers both ditest the synthetics because they make the races look ugly, they allow badly made horses to win important races and they are impossible to handicap.

    In my mind, they have very little to do with horse racing.

  16. Barry,
    I agree with you about “beauty of movement” on dirt and the dynamics of racing on synths, and if you’ll bear with me—I’m a baseball coach—I’ve found the same analogy to be true in bb w the advent of the new “field turf”–an artificial surface. What this did to the bb player was similar to what you describe with the racehorse; the ss, for example, needed to play deeper, but the true bounces took away much of the “approach” and “fielding techniques” we’d teach for grass infields, with bad hops, slow rollers, and a variety of different ground balls at various speeds. Instead, the ss could just wait back for the ball on field turf, ususally skipping hard and fast and uniformly, and what he needed instead of approach and technique and feet was a stronger arm to throw to 1st from deeper in the field. So, in essence, the “beauty” of a polished infielder’s technique and feet were being replaced by so-so fielders with a strong arm.
    For purists in bb such as me, field turf is awful; however, it exists, for whatever reasons—to be able to play in bad weather; cheaper to maintain, etc—and we’ve adapted to it. But we’ve had health concerns about it as well, such as rubber particles being ingested, etc.
    Bottom line, however, is though you and I agree that artificial surfaces are not great (and I’m back to racing), they do exist as widely different creatures, and all are not equal; the So Cal surfaces are not as good at Tapeta at GG, and Keeneland’s surface and overall experience, as Jessica pointed out, has been notably successful in a down market. Her point is not whether they are good or bad but that they exist and get short shrift from DRF. And that’s the specific issue, so for us to argue about good/bad synthetics is taking the specific spotlight away from her argument about DRF’s synthetic “slant.”
    For her sake, let’s please stay on topic.

  17. Sid, thanks for the comparison of racing over synthetic surfaces to baseball over similar. I admit, I’ve given little thought to how horses move over the surfaces and how that differs from dirt or turf. Does it? What Barry writes suggests that a horse’s stride may be more or less efficient on one surface compared to another, and that what makes for a great stride (a conformationally “true” stride, if I’m understanding Barry right), may differ. I’d be very interested in learning more about that part of the discussion. But that is getting off topic, so I’ll bring it back to the matter at hand, and say, as far as synthetics go, my attitude from the start of the synthetic era has been, “Let’s see where this goes,” and in handicapping, “Let’s see if we can find a way to understand races on these surfaces.” I have been dismayed by some of the strong anti-synth opinions, and especially those found in DRF coming from handicappers and writers I immensely respect, not because they differ from mine, but because they seem more emotional than rational.

  18. Dean,
    Thanks for the comments; the old guard is always difficult to purge, and it’s a shame because more often than not the old guard was once the new guard, but historically, as you know, the new seamlessley and predictably becomes the old and must systematically be replaced by fresh thinkers.

    I may do a new post addressing some of what i touched upon here.

  19. I think Tinky did get close to one point in his first post.

    The real problem with a “third surface,” if we can for a moment lump all the artificial versions together, is the dilution effect.

    There aren’t enough quality performers to cope with three divisions. Long term, especially had Santa Anita stayed all-weather, you would end up with distinct groups who are specialists on one surface and unwilling to risk their reputation on a different one (unless they are in a “no loose” situation, say a ten furlong turf horse taking a shot at the Breeders’ Cup Classic on all-weather). For the same reason, I suspect there is much less chance of a real top-class dirt horse – one in the real stallion prospect category -heading to the Dubai World Cup, now that it is on an artificial surface (is it any coincidence that the first try this year produced a great race, but was pretty ordinary from the standpoint of class?).

    From that point of view, major circuits running on a multiplicity of surfaces is definitely not the way forward.

  20. What I’ve objected to in DRF’s general treatment of synthetic racing is the idea that it is somehow illegitimate. That idea came early, starting with Beyer’s column on the 2007 Bluegrass, and has been repeated often ( think Crist calling the 2010 Dubai World Cup result a “crapshoot”). I think the DRF, Beyer, and what I call the Speed Figure Industrial Complex has hurt the sport by propogating such a slanted, jaundiced view. It dampened the last two Breeders Cups and it certainly has tempered the appreciation of Zenyatta. I don’t think the driving force is financial, but more reputational and among some a certain defensiveness regarding the threat to their standing as “experts”. The truth is the speed figure paradigm breaks down on synthetics. Because the paradigm doesn’t work it can’t be used to define relative merit, ability, and greatness. And any opinions that rely on the flawed paradigm are going to be flawed as well.

  21. I would suggest that DRF’s only percieved bias may be the fact that it IS a NYC based publication, and like many a NY based horseman that have watched too many G1 dirt horses get dusted on synthetic, top-class racing purists understandably lament the lack of ability for the stars of our sport to properly “shine”.

  22. Thanks Aunt Bea. You’ve stated the primary misconception/lie that is at the heart of this – that dirt horses don’t act on synthetics. Let’s start by looking at the best three year-olds of the synthetic era. Street Sense, Hard Spun, Lookin’ At Lucky and Rachel Alexandra, “dirt ” win the mjority of their starts on synthetics while never finishing off the board.
    Curlin? You want to tell me he didn’t run as well defeat at Santa Anita as he did in his narrow wins over Past The Point and Wanderin Boy that immediately preceeded the BC? And the Europeans who beat him? Kentucky breds. It wasn’t the surface, certainly not predominantly; horses raced and trained in Europe are just the best in the world. Is that even an argument anymore?
    Eskendreya? A Giant’s Causeway, he wouldn’t have handled synthetics given another chance? His one failed attempt was a matter of being asked to do too much too soon and the fact he had a terrible trip.
    Ever hear of Zenyatta? If you don’t think she is a “dirt” horse wait another few days.
    Finally, as for the “debacle” that befell those who prepped on dirt the last two Breeders Cups don’t be so quick to dismiss geography as the primary cause, just as in 2003 the trip West was too much for beaten favorites Sightseek, Aldebaran, and Cuvee.

  23. Correction: The last sentence of paragraph one should end – “dirt” horses all by anyone’s definition who won the majority of their starts on synthetics while never finishing off the board.

  24. 0-46 BC ’08-’09 is not a misconception, Kyle, much less a lie. And I have no idea what you’re trying to prove with those particular examples of racehorses.

  25. Bea,
    You mentioned GR1 horses who flopped or didn’t shine. I listed many of the best of the era, none of whom flopped on synthetics. Who are you talking about?
    I guess you just want to talk about the BC and 0 for 46. There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. That stat refers to horses who prepped on dirt, not to “dirt” horses. Such dirt proficient horses as Midnight Lute, Midshipman and Zenatta won. Lookin at Lucky should have won, was best. And many others ran their race – Sky Diva, Cocoa Beach, Music Note, Zaftig, Indian Blessing and even Summer Bird and Curlin, I would submit. Summer Bird was 4th best coming in and finished fourth. Curlin would have lost to Raven’s Pass anywhere in the world on that day. One was peaking, the other regressing. And Sakhee and Giant’s Causeway wer harbingers you might have missed.
    So, tell me who didn’t win because of synth? You might point to Indian Blessing, but she ran her race. And she had handled synth just fine going 1:19 and change earlier in the year. Maybe on dirt that outcome and some others would have been different. Certainly at another geographical location resluts would have differed. History shows that. But in SoCal, Venture might have won even on dirt. Through the years horses have made that transition much more readily out West.
    You and those like you have an affliction. It’s called Sythetic Derangement Syndrome. The ONLY factor you see is the surface. Why in 2003 did such prohibitive favorites as Sightseek, Aldeberan, and Cuvee go down to defeat in a single, one-day Cup? Don’t you think those factors that brought those horses down still existed in 2008 and 2009?

  26. Kyle, I admire the tenacity of your defensive arguments towards synthetic racing, although it seems obvious to me that you do not make a living being around racehorses on a daily basis.

  27. Let me make one last point for any of those out there who might have a bigger frame of reference than Bea. Imagine transposing the 1993 and 2008 BC Classics. If Raven’s Pass had beaten Curlin and Comapny on dirt in 1993 the storyline out of DRF and everywhere else would have been sharp Grade I class European trained to the moment by the great John Gosden returns to the country of his birth and gives young sire another American classic winner. Curlin, obviously not the same horse since Dubai, flattens out after possibly premature move.
    But if Arcangues had won the 2008 Classic instead of pointing to the never to be underestimated Andres Fabre, the sub-par field, and the fact Bertrando didn’t want 10 furlongs, all we would have heard was caterwauling about a mediocre grass horse’s illegitimate win on plastic.

  28. kyle –

    Since Aunt Bea won’t give you credit for anything, I will: congratulations on your use of the excellent, underutilized word “caterwauling”.

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