Loam used to be the surface of choice in thousands of backyard tennis courts around the country as well as in many regional or association headquarters. But dads got sick of bagging, rolling, marking and so on, while it became too labour-intensive for bigger complexes. They are nearly all synthetic now. Only harness and greyhound racing are loam hold-outs today.
Unfortunately, unlike greenkeeping or turf growing, there are no schools for loam maintenance, although GRV produces a nice manual to guide its track curators about levels, watering and the like.
Thoroughbred racing has edged in the synthetic direction – at Toowoomba, Caloundra, Canberra, Geelong and Moonee Valley – but only as an option to grass, not on its own. Interestingly, though, the Canberra folk tell us that its synthetic track promotes lower interference as horses tend “to maintain their line”.
Otherwise, grass surfaces at the gallops promote endless debate about how to maintain them, and where the fast lines are. Speed and track bias are regular variables. Still, they have made supreme efforts to address the problem, primarily by using penetrometers (a weighty steel spike dropped into the turf) to gauge just how soft the track is.
An easy guide to the gallop’s 1 to 10 track ratings is available at bet4place.com. However, its implementation is still much criticised and whatever they decide on in the morning will vary later in the day.
No such effort has been mounted at the dogs, where we are offered no more than a steward’s best guess after he has walked around the track. Sadly, the published good or slow decisions are not worth a cracker in practical terms. Besides which, few would know what surface a dog prefers, unlike horses whose ability in the mud are not only known but published in daily papers. And a penetrometer would not work in loam, even though loam can vary from hard to soft on top.
Indeed, stewards might well restrict themselves to “satisfactory” or “slush”. Anything else is meaningless.
Anyway, a bit of rain may well help a dog track get faster. In practice, a given track can vary from the average by two lengths fast to six lengths slow.
However, stewards could do more. Two moves would be worthwhile. First they should tell us briefly what the weather is like, particularly the wind. That information should also go into meeting results published by all authorities.
Second, they need to develop computer programs which compare what happened today with what the leading dogs did previously in their career. Those differences, when averaged, will provide the only decent guide to conditions of the day. It will still be no more than an estimate, but at least it will have a solid statistical base. With the gear available today, that should not be hard to do.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Funny things can happen to a track surface, notably at the five mentioned at the top of this article. Let’s look at them.
Traralgon completely replaced its surface material a couple of years ago. That took a while to settle down but then it offered much the same speed as the old track. Then, around the time of the Cup series early last year, it suddenly quickened up – by at least three lengths. The club denies the track changed, claiming it was just due to a few top dogs going around. It is wrong. The change was obvious in performances at all levels, even in maidens. Where breaking 30 sec was once the exception, it is now routine.
A little earlier than that Wentworth Park also suddenly got three lengths faster, which resulted in all the 29.50 to 29.70 times seen over the last year. Similarly to Traralgon, breaking 30 sec became normal where once it was rare. Track bosses also deny any change which might have caused that, which indicates (a) they do not watch the effects of their handiwork and (b) they have no method of determining what if any changes are occurring.
Sandown is more complex as it first replaced its entire surface last April which ended up making a minor difference. More recently GRV decided to fiddle with the timing mechanism and that reduced times by two to three lengths. Historically, we are therefore dealing with Sandown A, B and C tracks – all within the reach of a single dog’s career. Comparisons with other tracks therefore became guesswork.
The Meadows had the same timing treatment with comparable outcomes.
Gosford is the newcomer to the list as only in the last couple of months have times suddenly accelerated. New track records have been run for 400m and 515m. No-one seems to know why.
Indeed, all five tracks now have new track records, which collectively is enough to give form students grey hair trying to work out which was what when they look at the formguide. And what of the previous record holders, whose performances are now degraded?
All of which leaves the industry with three major needs: a better commentary from the stewards about conditions at each meeting, a decent method of assessing track speed on the day and a more scientific system for examining what is happening, and why, to track surfaces.
Anything less will continue to leave punters in the dark, to say nothing about the “false” advertising by breeders about their sires’ wins.
And I have not even mentioned Amado’s rocket-assisted 18.83 record at Healesville. As far as I can determine, that is easily a world record for any distance, any surface, anywhere. Hmmm. Was there a cheetah in its ancestry?