Digging up the dirt

LAST week, an article entitled “Is it time to rip up the Dubai dirt and start again?”, by NICHOLAS GODFREY was published on the Racing Post website. Statistics tell a story, and Mike de Kock reckons this piece presents much food for thought.

When they had their biggest hit in the 1980s, Edwyn Collins and his Scottish popsters Orange Juice weren’t talking about the dirt strip at Meydan. But they might as well have been. Rip it up and start again, they suggested. Or, given that they took out the Tapeta a few years ago, rip it up and start again . . . again.

There is a a huge slice of uncertainty about the dirt track, where the post-position draw could be absolutely pivotal owing to the horrible track bias that tends to dominate proceedings at Meydan. Anyone who watched Super Saturday (and indeed last Saturday’s Dubai World Cup) will have seen anything they needed to know: get in front on the rail and there is a pretty good chance you’ll stay there.

Every racecourse on the planet offers some kind of bias, so in a sense it is just a question of degree. More than one Breeders’ Cup, for example, has been affected, including last year at Del Mar where the estimable Gun Runner managed to overcome an unholy bias favouring outside closers, something rarely seen in southern California.

The Meydan sand experience.

The downside of the Meydan sand experience. (Pic by illustration, Vanessa Ng)


Yet I cannot recall another track where the bias has been quite as pronounced on such a regular basis as the Meydan dirt strip. At times it seems as if horses can almost go as fast as they like without having any concern something will catch them from the rear. Closers – even midpack runners – just don’t win as often as they should.

I am indebted to my esteemed Racing Post colleague Ron Wood – read his Spotlights at racingpost.com, people – for putting some flesh on my anecdotal bones, so here goes. On dirt described as ‘fast’ at the last eight Meydan meetings, 22 winners of 26 thoroughbred races have been won by horses who were in front after four furlongs. Even those who weren’t raced for the most part on or near the rail.

On Super Saturday, seven-length winner Jordan Sport lowered the six-furlong track record in a Group 3 and North America lowered California Chrome’s mile-and-a-quarter track record; Yulong Warrior and North America won by 11 lengths and five lengths from the front; anything more than two off the rail was beaten by cricket-pitch margins. Even at the last non-carnival meeting at Meydan, dirt winners from off the pace hugged the rail as much as possible. Ron, who knows more about racing in Dubai than Mr Heinz does about baked beans, also tells me that at the last three Super Saturdays all four dirt races (so 12 in total) go to front-runners.

On Saturday both Mendelssohn (an 18 ¾ length winner over 8 ½ furlongs) and Thunder Snow (5,5-length winner over 10 furlongs) set new track records!

So what do we know? Meydan’s dirt track naturally favours inside speed and the kickback is horrendous. However, before we go running away with the idea that all we need to do is find the horse most likely to lead, such a huge apparent bias has been turned on its head at past World Cup meetings.

It rained last year, when Sharp Azteca got cooked on the front end, and Arrogate produced his amazing last-to-first effort; the one-two in the Golden Shaheen were drawn wide. Previous World Cup winners also raced either off the rail (California Chrome) or from behind (Prince Bishop). So frankly, who knows what to expect?

A series of dubious World Cup results signalled the death knell for Tapeta as the Meydan surface, which I was opposed to largely on the basis that it offered merely ersatz turf racing. Further, however kind Tapeta is, it was unfortunate to have such a prestigious race – designed as a world championship event – on an artificial surface not used anywhere else for major races.

But no-one could claim the return to dirt has been as successful as might have been desired. While it is a hugely welcome development that the Americans have come back in numbers for World Cup night itself, they aren’t there for the remainder of the carnival, when dirt racing is a one-dimensional benefit for domestic UAE trainers. It is the very opposite of cosmopolitan – Europeans can’t seem to win on dirt and rarely try, the Americans and Japanese don’t go until World Cup night, Mike de Kock seems to have given up and there are no South Americans.

The trouble is we’re all still guessing. Carnival evidence suggests the powers-that-be should at least consider replacing this specific dirt surface with something that produces less kickback and less inside-rail speed bias. Either way, though, given the track’s configuration (built for Tapeta) and climatic conditions, one doesn’t envy the Meydan groundstaff.

Mike de Kock commented:
“Aside from the track and draw bias and the given statistics, of more concern to me is the safety aspect which should be taken very seriously.   Put yourself in a horse and jockeys position. How would you like to be a horse sitting behind the leaders in kickback trying to breathe? Many horses who race on the Meydan sand track visibly try to turn their heads away from the flying sand or slow down to get out of it. The abnormal distances from first to last speak for themselves.

The Meydan track is incorrectly called a dirt track, it is in fact a sand track – there is a big difference. I don’t mind racing on dirt and I understand that the switch was a good idea but I believe we need to look at dirt, not sand. There are many examples in the US and on Dubai’s doorstep in Saudi Arabia. They have a dirt track regarded by many jockeys as being the best dirt track they have ridden on.”

-Article edited, World Cup statistics added. Thanks to Messers Godfrey and Wood.