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.