On August 13, 1956, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED published an article by Pat Lynch, who had some hard things to say about "telemeter mania" in West Coast racing. Our guest columnist this week is Oscar Otis, the able and experienced correspondent of The Morning Telegraph, who sends us from Santa Anita this powerful defense of western track management which we trust will do nothing to dampen the fires of controversy.
Most thoroughbred horsemen are positive individualists with strong ideas about all phases of horse racing.
This is not surprising, as racing has been aptly described as being "an inexact science of differences of opinion." But the one topic on the turf that brings the widest cleavage in likes and dislikes is the subject of track conditions—fast or deep.
Californians, who prefer and maintain fast race tracks, popularly styled pasteboards, have had more verbal vitriol hurled at their race courses than at all the other tracks on the continent put together. The West Coasters, for once, are not fighting mad about this criticism but rather have taken the haughty stance that the western pasteboard is years ahead of the times, indeed a projection of the ideal running-surface of the future. They feel sure the East will catch up with "progress" and eventually convert to the California standard.
The basic difference between East and West is often oversimplified. Easterners deride the coast ovals as "paved highways," and Westerners in turn dub some, but by no means all, eastern tracks "plowed fields."
It is just possible there is a grain of truth in the eastern taunt that the West has the feeling that fast time contributes to the prestige of a race horse and that a mile-and-a-quarter run in 2:00 flat is just two seconds grander than if the same stake were clocked in 2:02. Better for horse, better for civic pride, of which there is plenty in California, and better for the headlines in the newspapers. Patrons who see the race are more impressed, even awed, by new records set before their eyes.
But if, indeed, time records were considered when the tracks were built, today the California speed strips are maintained as they are because the hard, firm course has stood the test of more than 20 years of campaigning and is accepted by almost every western horseman as being far and away the safest anywhere. These tracks are engineered as highways, some with a rock or paved underbase, about a foot and a half of soil on top, topped by a thin veneer of cushion. They are not really downhill, as some have sneered, but are just plain fast.
The mechanical action of a horse in full stride has been carefully studied in film patrol pictures which would seem to prove that the stride of any given horse is more rhythmical on a pasteboard than on a deep track, and it therefore stands to reason that a fast, firm strip puts no undue strain upon the pastern, that flexible bit of bone just above the hoof which is the horse's shock absorber. But the deep track permits a horse to "knuckle over" as he hits, putting a jar upon the pastern that can transmit as far as the knee.
It is no wonder that in the early days of far western racing the best stake horses were often those which had gone wrong in the East and were sold cheaply to western buyers who shipped them across the Rockies, repaired them and sent them on to race willingly and soundly on pasteboards.
Charlie Whittingham, trainer for one of America's great stables, Llangollen Farm of Mrs. Richard Lunn, who races both East and West, says, "I'm a fast-track man, and I'd say Santa Anita and Hollywood Park are the two best strips in the nation. Belmont Park is the best of the tracks in New York, mainly because of its good footing.
"There is no secret about the advantages of a California track. Horses stay sound longer, run farther and with less effort than most anywhere else. The less effort a horse needs to win, the longer he'll keep on running in top form, and that means money in the bank for any stable, plus a far better chance to prove a stud prospect. If a track is deep, horses flounder, and when they flounder they are far more apt to take a faulty step. Deep tracks put a strain on a horse, and a tired horse is an injury-prone horse."
Horatio Luro, the colorful internationalist who also races both sides of the continent, puts it another way: "Santa Anita's track is superb and an excellent example of a firm, fast, safe course. Any time you encounter a deep track, a horse cannot get ahold of it properly, and this gives you a condition called 'cuppy.' As a horse strides, the ground breaks out from under his feet. He slips and slides a fraction of an inch every time his hoofs touch the footing. The firmer the track, the less tendency it has to cup and is, therefore, safer. Of course, there has to be a cushion, but these California people have combined speed with safety very expertly."
We could add testimony upon testimony, but these two observations born of experience are typical.
Santa Anita has reversed the process of most track maintenance procedures, depending mainly upon the simple process of rolling the track to a considerable degree of compaction, then cutting a fluff cushion on the surface and letting it go at that.
The general manager of Santa Anita, Gwynn Wilson, reasons this method as being the most sensible, explaining, "Normally, we roll the track and then harrow in a cushion of about two and three-quarter inches. If we get a forecast of rain, we roll and stop right there. If the rain actually arrives, the horses punch their feet through the dampish surface and in effect cut their own cushion. If it doesn't rain, it's no trouble to harrow the fluff up for regular fast track racing. We haven't had a single serious complaint this winter but an astonishingly high number of compliments."
Wilson hastily added that Santa Anita has no paving underneath its surface, the old rock foundation having been torn out a few years ago. Now there is only the area's natural soil going straight down to bedrock.
Hollywood Park, where world records abound, has an inch of soil compacted into an asphalt base, just 18 inches underneath its running surface. But at Hollywood, another high-safety-rated track, the proof of its engineering is easily demonstrated by the phenomenon that when horses speed over its course, people standing at the outer rail cannot hear any clatter of hoofs. This ear test is regarded by horsemen as scientifically decisive.
Golden Gate Fields, on the tideland of San Francisco Bay, claims to be the world's fastest track, which it probably is. Golden Gate has a true rock base of decomposed, compacted granite, and this base is fairly close to the surface. Yet trainers who race it flatly declare it is one of the safest of all race tracks. The explanation at Golden Gate lies in part in the makeup of its surface soil which is impregnated with colloids. These small particles tend to stay in suspension in water and impart a bounce that literally scoots a horse ahead. Horses don't run in the accepted sense of the word at Golden Gate, they skim.
Visible proof is offered the skeptic by driving a truck around the track. The tires sink in, and you can actually see the ground rise, seemingly coming alive in the wake of the wheels.
Other notable fast, safe tracks in the West are Longacres near Seattle, Caliente in Old Mexico, and Turf Paradise in Phoenix. In years gone by, when Caliente didn't have the quality stock it boasts today, it was axiomatic that if you sent an ailing horse there, the chances are he would get well and race indefinitely. For Caliente, like all pasteboards, is kind to horses with tendon or ligament trouble.
Proof that the California concept is gaining despite steady criticism is provided by Louisville, Ky. Ten years ago, Churchill Downs Track Superintendent Tom Young told us that 2:04 was a norm time for the Kentucky Derby, a standard figure from which merit could be judged. Last year, he revised that standard down to 2:03. And Churchill Downs also rolls for anticipated rain, though using a different technique from Santa Anita's.
We have stated the case for the California race track. Our exposition of the merits of the speedway for race horses will earn general applause for western horsemen, but others will see it merely as kerosene added to a blaze that has been roaring along for years. Take sides if you-will. For in racing, one man's opinion is as good as another's, if not better.