Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Great Divide

The Europeans took five races on the B.C. card including two on the "dirt." While we have come to expect the "world" contingent of horses to do well on the turf we have more or less owned the dirt from the inception of the Breeder's Cup. This year the two biggest changes in B.C. rules (ever) seem to have shot a few holes in our illusions of dominance: no steroids and the Pro-Ride, synthetic surface.

One has to wonder if as many European horses would have shown up had the B.C. been held at Churchill or Belmont? Certainly the turf horses would have shown up - perhaps even more of them - but I don't think the dirt invaders would have been as numerous, though numerous may not be the best adjective to describe eight. Of course if you consider Ventura, Cocoa Beach, Cedar Mountain, Rebellion, Well Armed, Square Eddie and Champs Elysees as European that number swells to 15. All of those had started their careers overseas. Most of them have raced at least half of their careers elsewhere and all of them have only run on turf or synthetic surfaces since arriving in the U.S. By now I'm sure you can see where I am going with this post; arguing against the synthetic surface.

We would probably all agree that having as many foreign horses as possible at the Breeder's Cup should be one of the goals because it adds interest, credibility (for the claim of World Championships) competition and wagering value. But it has become obvious to all that the synthetics run much more like turf than dirt. If that's what we're looking for why not just run everything on the grass? That could eliminate a few races like the Dirt Mile, Sprint, Marathon, etc.. And we can fit it all into one day again! That's obviously not what is desired. So why the synthetics?

The argument has been made that synthetics are much safer. Perhaps that may prove to be true but let's consider some other factors that may not have been taken into account regarding "real" dirt injuries. The very first of these considerations should be steroids. We know that in humans and animals steroids add muscle mass and therefor weight to those that use them. How much has this added, unnatural weight, contributed to injury? And - though some will continue to argue the point - steroids also enhance performance. With the superior strength of added muscle mass how can that not result in better performance? Taking those two factors together and the result is a bigger, stronger, heavier horse that is able to outperform the frame they were born with. What would anyone guess may be the result?- Disaster. Coincidentally the upturn in synthetic steroids (a relatively recent phenomenon) seems to have taken place during the era in which many feel like the breed has gotten more fragile. Coincidence? I don't think so. Now I may be ranting without bothering to bolster my argument with scientific numbers but it also seems to me, in human athletes anyway, that when steroid use ends performance diminishes and injury rates again rise. I believe we will end up seeing that supposition playing out in racing as well. I think we will see a lot more horses just disappearing from the track or retiring due to less than catastrophic injuries. Hopefully the new crops, being steroid free will prove more durable. Only time will tell.

Another variable that may have added to injuries is the amount of racing days and the plenitude of options to run horses. As a horses ability wanes and they are claimed they can quickly move downward to the lower ranks of tracks and find a place where they can compete. More and more syndicates vying for horses, that usually start at the lower claiming levels, (we can't all afford The Legends Fund or the IEAH's of the world) puts more pressure on horses to run. No one wants to pay for a horse that just eats hay and burns money (except perhaps for Old Friends), so if it can't compete it is probably sold and moved on down. I can think of one horse recently that is a good example: Mike's Classic. He is a record holder at Belmont. He competed and won at the highest level and last I saw him (recently) he was running up at Finger Lakes, for $4,000, I believe! And he lost big! That's just plain wrong! He not only was a very good race horse he was a very nice, likable horse ( I had the pleasure of walking him many times). What is going to happen to him? Will they run him until he breaks down? How much do these situations add to the breakdown statistics? There are too many races and horses are over raced or race hurt. That is probably the biggest factor in injury in both humans and equines. Perhaps without the steroids they won't be able to run hurt anymore and that will help the situation.

I guess I have become a bit jaded in that I don't always believe the reasons I hear for change. I do believe in change, but I also believe there should a reason behind every decision. And that reason ought not be a supposition. I question if the synthetics are really that much safer than the dirt tracks or that dirt tracks can not be made as safe. I wonder if all considerations that led to injuries were taken into consideration. Or is the move for tracks to "go synthetic" more a fiscal/logistic decision. If it is I could accept that a lot easier as a reason for the switch. I have to wonder if the change in the drug rules, and more specifically the steroid rules, will not help to pad illusory results. I hope that the dirt tracks don't disappear. At least until there is a certainty of superiority based on substantial enough evidence not to be coincidence.

Part of my defense of the dirt is based on the horses. We have always had a great divide between U.S. horses and world horses, based on surface preference, but now with the introduction of synthetics, we are creating a divide in our own country. Just when we were finally moving towards more uniform drug laws that would promote more competition between jurisdictions we are, perhaps, creating a divide that will prove wider than the old ones. Are we creating a situation where we will have the dirt runners and the synthesizers and never the twain will meet? I think so. That is just plain bad for business; very bad for business. We have to have the best meet the best. There has always been a difference in tracks. Santa Anita ran nothing like Belmont. Nor did either run like Bay Meadows (R.I.P) or Oaklawn. The differences were enough to make the races interesting and often had an effect on the outcome of a race. But they were similar enough that a dirt horse could go, run and reasonably assume they could handle the track. Are we headed toward the day when we will never see another West Coast horse come to the Classics or to Saratoga? I know that is a little dramatic but the synthetics will definitely slow the exodus East in the spring, probably to a trickle. It was already a big issue this year. The California breeding industry is now headed in a completely different direction. Every Stallion station and breeding farm has to be reevaluating their stock. I would. Without any dirt opportunities in California the "American Breed" will be gone in the foreseeable future.

When a horse of Curlin's abilities ends up 'up the track' the difference is great enough to impact the breed. Sure, he could have had an off day. And Raven's Pass should not have been let off anywhere near $13.50-1! Curlin has been at it for two long years and perhaps the time and the miles had finally caught up with him, but I think he just got bogged down in the wax. It is his first finish out of the money in 16 attempts and he's been in against -at least in my opinion- a lot tougher fields. This is not sour grapes. I'm disappointed he lost but not angry about it. My argument is that he lost to the track not to another horse. That is not to say Raven's Pass or HenrytheNavigator may not have beaten him on the dirt. But if it was run on the dirt I don't think they would have been in the race.

I hope the industry is making the right decisions to improve the sport for the future. Unfortunately I think the future or the breed may end up running "up the track," as a result of the synthetics. I vote to keep the difference in racing.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think you are missing the point completely. The events at Santa Anita should have opened your eyes to the future integrity of racing due to safe and fair track conditions and non indulgence in drugs.

Now the breeders in the USA need to show some tactical sense in there forthcoming breeding plans. And follow turf/synthetic lines of breeding. The Sheik and Coolmore already have made this obvious.

Oh and a another thought strikes me in five years time if this is done, An american trained horse just maybe will win the Derby (UK) or the Arc (FR). Thats if the trainer stops running his horse round in circles.

St Paddy

Nick said...

And I think you are missing the point. There is no good, hard *proof* that synthetics are safer, and until there is there is going to be no consensus on the matter. If you are implying that in five years everything will be turf/synthetics I bet you have a surprise coming.

The immediate after effects of the BC are going to be a deepening of the divide between the pro-dirt and pro-synthetic crowds. You can see the evidence of that happening already. I predict that next year's BC is going to be an ugly affair with American trainers turning up their noses at the idea of racing their horse at Santa Anita while European horses come in droves.

The idea of American racing shunting itself into three separate surfaces could very well come to pass, and I don't think that's a good thing no matter which of the three you are rooting for.

George said...

...And the idea that American owners and trainers are going to "point" toward the Darby or de l'Arc de Triomphe is also a misconceived notion. I would like to see more American interest in those races but the fact is our racing calenders don't exactly mesh. And the focus and methods of racing and training are very different. Obviously I agree with Nick's assessment of the repercussions of the synthetics. And I also agree with him in that I won't expect too many Eastern(dirt) horses go west for the B.C.
next year. The Great Divide has begun.

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