Now the shouting has died down it’s time to look closer into how Dyna Willow won the Summer Cup at Wentworth Park nine days ago.
Both its heat and final runs were marvellous performances – in identical 41.92 times – against some of the best distance dogs available. Smart Valentino, arguably the country’s best since Miata retired (providing conditions suit) was unable to run her down from a pretty handy position in the back straight.
But there are serious queries.
These two wins were completely out of character for this bitch, representing times many lengths faster than anything it has ever done in its career.
Its early racing over 500m and 600m was useful without ever being spectacular, winning five out of sixteen starts. Since it started racing over the long distance in August, it has won six of ten races (and one over 600m) all in moderate to average times, all effectively leading most of the way. That record sounds OK but four of those wins involved only moderate opposition so enthusiasm should be tempered.
Four of those ten were at Sandown and four at The Meadows (including three handicaps). Only the latest two Wenty runs were in the top drawer. Now consider how Dyna Willow’s race times at the three tracks compare (times have been corrected for the handicap advantage of 10m or 9m).
|Track||Best Time||Track Record||Difference|
|Sandown Park||41.88||41.17 (Miata)||+0.71 (8.5 lengths)|
|The Meadows||42.96||42.03 (Nellie Noodles)||+0.93 (13.3 lengths)|
|Wentworth Park||41.92||41.81 (Miata)||+0.11 (1.6 lengths)|
Of course, you have to allow some leeway in these times as dogs are not machines and circumstances can vary, while the erratic Nellie Noodles was a very hard one to catch. Even so, the differences are stark. Separately, our long term calculations involving thousands of dogs show that there is a four to six lengths difference in average times between the two Melbourne trips and Wentworth Park (Sandown quicker, Meadows slower). None of that history suggests a sub-42 sec time at Wenty, or anything like it. Indeed, prior to the heat, its best recent run was the equivalent of about 42.46.
Dyna Willow’s sectional times also improved markedly, although it is not staightforward to compare the tracks as the Melbourne times are fairly small (5 to 6 sec) while the published Wenty times are 16 sec-plus.
In contrast to Dyna Willow, a similar winning time by Bell Haven, Smart Valentino or Lucy Wires would not have surprised so much as all have previously run a little under or over the 42 second mark.
There is another aspect to this saga, if I can call it that. A feature of Dyna Willow’s two Wenty wins was that it finished off the races well, particularly holding off Smart Valentino in the final. Yet in all its Melbourne distance runs it had faded in the run home, sometimes still winning, sometimes not (much like Irma Bale). That is yet another peculiarity which warrants some explanation.
Clearly, there was a massive change in Dyna Willow on arriving in Sydney. And it was not a fluke as it happened twice. The question then becomes how did this happen? Did it just enjoy the city air? Wenty is handy to the fish markets and Blackwattle Bay. Dogs are territorial to one degree or another yet the fast runs were in a strange place, not one the bitch was familiar with. There was no significant change in its weight. Did its training regime alter? That seems unlikely as it has been racing week-in, week-out since it started distance racing in late August. And, of course, it was subject to all the travel to Sydney and back.
In passing, that high frequency racing did not do it much good on its return to Melbourne as it bombed out in a 515m Laurels heat at Sandown five days later, starting poorly (5.25) and finishing worse (7th). Punters who backed it into a $3.60 favourite must have been away with the fairies. Infinite Wish, in the same circumstances, did only a little better. Such quick backups should surely be banned, especially when coming back from draining 720m races.
Back to Wenty, the second big point is that, by any measure, Dyna Willow’s Wenty runs were exceptional as they displayed remarkable improvement. You would think that warranted a question or two from the stewards but none was forthcoming. Their reports made no comment on the brilliant time in either heat or final. Why not?
In practice, this continues a long history of stewards in the three eastern states (at least) being unable or unwilling to probe performances, or getting it wrong when they do. A little while ago I instanced the questioning of a run by Sweet It Is when it won at The Meadows as a rank outsider. In practice, the dog’s time was no better than it had run in previous starts and it won the race because the others in the field messed up their chances. Stewards failed to recognise that.
Similarly, over recent years, I have several times pointed out that stewards have been lax in policing prominent dogs racing with injury. Miss Grub was a classic example. Although never a top liner in my view, the bitch was regularly backed in the twilight of its career only for punters to learn from the trainer, on retirement, that he could no longer patch it up satisfactorily. None of that was reported to stewards at the time, or to the public. Much the same could be said about the way Chinatown Lad raced in the last few months of its career. Go back even further and we discovered that Slater won the Golden Easter Egg despite the fact – in the trainer’s words after the event – that it had been suffering from both illness and injury. Nobody told the stewards, even though that is required by the Rules of Racing.
Queensland stewards decided to take no action in the Brunker case at Ipswich (an alleged First Four “fix”) despite the Northern Territory Racing Commission ruling against Brunker and recommending police investigation. The same stewards have had more than one disqualification overturned on appeal due to the “inconsistency” of their decisions.
Even in a more recent case, stewards at The Gardens last Friday took no action – other than expressing “disappointment” - at the failure of connections of Cawbourne Looney to inform them, and therefore the public, about heat stress suffered by the kennel’s dogs on the way to the track, following the failure of the vehicle’s air-conditioning. No penalty was assessed and so the public sent the dog out as favourite from its rails box, despite the presence of Smart Valentino in the race. Cawbourne Looney is a notoriously inconsistent racer anyway but ran an inglorious last.
These are just the highlights. The evidence is that stewards pay scant attention to form variations or prior injuries, or get it wrong when they do, yet surely that is a prime element of their job, or should be. Indeed, what is the purpose of them carrying around laptops full of data, and of real time supervisors at work at head office, if they cannot correctly identify peculiarities?
The answers to some of these queries may well remain a mystery. But we will never know the truth if the questions are not posed, and action taken when rules are broken. To put it another way, if Gai Waterhouse were racing dogs, she would not have had to pay a cent in fines earlier this year.