More aggression aimed at under-mining American values: this time it's punters under the cosh, led astray by mysterious, foreign horse-racing practices. In other words, the use of artificial racing surfaces such as Polytrack, spreading across the country to corrupt American racing.
According to the WaPo's Andrew Beyer, Polytrack - pioneered at English courses such as Lingfield - produces:
A mutant version of horse racing that penalizes thoroughbreds for being fast
Un-American! Beyer's complaint is that races at Keeneland, in Lexington, have become, well, too european. instead of a flat-out sprint from tape to post horses are jockeying (ha!) for position prior to kicking for the finishing line. This is the way things are done in europe, where racing takes place on good old natural grass, not dirt. Polytrack, though an artificial surface, much more closely resembles turf conditions than dirt.
The difference seems startling:
Since Keeneland installed Polytrack last fall, the surface has turned the game there upside down. American racing has historically favored horses endowed with speed; its breeding industry has invested billions of dollars to produce such horses. Yet at Keeneland, a track that used to be dominated by front-runners, speed has become a liability. Of the first 48 races run on the surface last year, only one horse was able to lead all the way.
Mind you, Beyer does have a horse, so to speak, in this fight. As Ted McClelland observes:
Beyer is best known as the inventor of the Beyer Speed Figure, a tool for comparing races run under varying track conditions. Horseplayers are debating whether speed figures will work on Polytrack, which is designed to sieve rain and perform the same in all weather. A traditional dirt track is banked for drainage, so water collects at the rail and may slow down the horses who run there. Racetrack regulars like Beyer make good money spotting horses hampered by such track biases and betting them the next time they race. Polytrack, which is supposed to run the same every time, could kill that angle.
No wonder european-style tactics risk turning racing into a farce: who could want a surface fair on all horses instead of one dependent upon drainage patterns?
But what most struck me about Beyer's complaint was his very American insistence that everything measurable be measured. The uniformity - more or less, or at least much more so than turf - of dirt conditions has fostered an American mania for timing horses down to the last hundredth of a second, as though it makes much difference to a horse's greatness that it can complete a 1/2 mile in 46.86 rather than 46.99 seconds?
This is fine as far as it goes. Which isn't far.
Still, the notion that something might not be easily measurable runs hard against the American grain. It's one reason (among many) why some Americans remain suspicious of soccer: statistics can't tell you much about a players' contribution. Similarly, horse-racing in Britain and Ireland has never much bothered about times (as turf tracks have varied conditions).
Myself, I'd have thought horse-racing could stand some surface variety and perhaps reward different styles of horse. But maybe not. Still, there's something very American about the desire to measure, or find empirical, definitive evidence upon which to rank horses. They are horses after all. Yet there you have it: beating on against the current and all that. The stuff that makes fortunes but, perhaps, robs us of some mystery...