Thursday, July 04, 2013

Summer musing

No runners this week.  We had just the one entry: I put Zarosa, who loves wet tracks, in at Warwick tomorrow as the weather at the end of last week was unsettled, the ground was good to soft at time of entry (Saturday morning) and there was more rain forecast.  They duly got the forecast further band of rain with 5mm falling overnight Tuesday into Wednesday; but it was still good to firm, good in places at declaration time (10.00 am Wednesday) so, with warm, dry and increasingly sunny conditions forecast, it was an easy decision not to declare.  And one can see that fast conditions at Warwick are generally expected, with six of the seven races having single-figure fields.  There are 52 horses declared for a 7-race card, which works out at just under seven and a half runners per race (before non-runners, of which I am sure that there will be a few if the weather does indeed become increasingly summery and the track dries up further).

That brings us nicely on to the big talking point from the end of last week: the state of the track at Newcastle. As the ground was softer than good on Northumberland Plate day, the clerk of the course came in for plenty of criticism for having watered earlier in the week.  But, really, did he have any other sensible option?  On the Monday, the track was good to firm, firm in places and all the forecasts were for warm, dry weather with minimal rain.  If he were to aim to produce good to firm ground (which is still firmer than ideal for the majority of horses) for the weekend, at that stage he had to water - or take the chance that the forecasts were badly wrong.  Forecasts, of course, can be badly wrong (as was
the case in this instance and in so many other instances) but it would have been foolhardy to proceed as if that were the case.  And, crucially, it is worth mentioning that not a word of criticism was breathed at the time, the critics not swarming out of the woodwork until the benefit of hindsight had been conferred on them.

Why should he be aiming to produce good to firm ground?  Well, there is a school of thought which says that  racecourses should be neither irrigated nor drained, but left as nature intended.  Horses who appreciate a quagmire would get their chances to run on such conditions (assuming that the races were not abandoned) and horses who appreciate a very firm track would also be catered for.  There's a lot to be said for that theory - the only flaw being that it has been almost universally discarded.  Nowadays, virtually nobody disputes the principal of watering racecourses in dry periods so that horses are rarely asked to race on hard tracks.

There are, of course, some horses who cope well with, and even thrive on, hard tracks.  These, of course, are thoroughly admirable horses who are clearly very sound - abnormally sound, freakishly sound even, by today's standards - and who should be rewarded in their racing days and subsequently be bred from. However, it is important to remember that they are a small minority - and that they will have plenty of opportunities to race on reasonably firm tracks, tracks which suit them but which are unsuitable for the majority of their potential rivals, in any normal year (ie in pretty much any year bar 2012).  The majority of horses are happiest racing on good tracks - and that is why tracks which are neither firm nor soft are called 'good', because that is the best ground for horses.  If it becomes significantly firmer than good or significantly softer than good, the majority of horses would find themselves racing on ground which didn't suit them, and on ground on which their chance of injury is significantly higher than normal.

You'll have noticed that the field sizes fall away dramatically when the ground becomes significantly faster than good and also when the ground becomes notably soft.  This is not because trainers don't want to contest the weak races which crop up under such conditions: it is because trainers don't like running horses when their chance of being injured is significantly increased, and when their chance of showing their best form is significantly decreased.  The upshot of this is that if we are happy to see the attrition rate among the racehorse population increased and to see plenty of races being run with very small fields, then clerks of the course should not water even when the likelihood is that their next meeting a few days hence is to be run on very firm ground.  However, if we assume that there is some merit in the modern principle of trying to minimize the occasions when, say, races are run with so few runners that there is no each-way betting (and of trying to make racing no more attritional than it need be) then
Newcastle's clerk James Armstrong had very little option but to water the track a few days before a meeting for which the forecasts suggested that doing nothing would result in the going being 'firm'.

And the good(ish) news is that there are likely to be plenty of small fields over the next couple of weeks because the forecasts (which may or may not prove to be reasonably accurate) currently suggest that we're in for a spell of proper summer weather, with things improving again from the pleasant conditions shown in these photographs, all taken in the past few days.  Which, overall, is a rather pleasing prospect.  And, by the way, it might be worth using this stable as a sample to guide us as to the percentage of horses who relish firm(ish) tracks.  We currently have six horses here in strong work (Zarosa, Gift Of Silence, Ethics Girl, Grand Liaison, Wasabi and Roy Rocket) plus one (Douchkirk) who should be in strong work but isn't because of having been injured by racing on a firm track; of these seven horses, only Ethics Girl (who loves firm ground and who would thrive if watering didn't exist and if we regularly had the chance to race on hard tracks) relishes the conditions when the ground gets firmer than good. Contrastingly, she is hopeless on soft ground, while Zarosa and Grand Liaison love heavy tracks.  The other four are probably happiest when the ground is genuinely good.  And I think that that proportional break-down of preferences is fair and representative of the horse population as a whole.

Here endeth the lesson.

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