Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Off The Fence and into the Dirt

I'm certain that when Breeder's Cup weekend comes around it will feel as exciting and festive as ever. But this year I feel something insidious has cast a pall over The Breeders Cup. I may be the only one feeling this way. And at first I didn't discount the possibility that this feeling is somehow a result of a juxtaposition of racing and the national and world financial woes of the day. However, after ferreting out the culprit I am sure it is solely the result of an industry that runs before it walks. I am referring to the synthetic track on which this years races will be contested. I also believe that there have been many small decisions made since last years event that had already started to dull the shine and I'll start with some of those.

For me, Filly Friday is a negative. I won't be alone in trying to juggle a schedule so that I may be able to watch the races. And if I am unable to watch the Friday races I'm sure I won't be alone in that unfortunate circumstance. Of course if the worst does occur we'll miss all the distaff decisions; that's foresight for you! Sure one can access replays but replays, while a helpful tool, are passe` by definition. All the attributes that make the sport of horse racing so great- the visual of the horses body language in the paddock, anticipation, the excitement of the race itself, those few fleeting seconds that make up each race that are the penultimate moments and can only truly be experienced live, are all gone with the running. To watch Zenyatta or any of the hopeful runners on replay, after the fact, does not nearly hold the same drama or urgency as the live event. Horse racing is about being live and alive. It's a celebration of physicality. I would still vote for one long day. But if it has to be two days I'd prefer to see Juvenile Friday. As I've stated before, I believe Saturday and Sunday is the way to go. This after all is the 'Big Leagues'. Does the brain trust of racing really believe they will lose more handle going against baseball and football than running on a day when the only race fans that will definitely be able to enjoy are industry workers? Horse fans are HORSE fans.

Getting to my main area of contention - the synthetic track - I have to admit I had not thought about it as a negative until trying to figure out why I was feeling as I was about the B.C. I can trace the seed of the sentiment to mid summer when Jess Jackson laid out plans for Curlin's turf experiment with an eye toward running in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr.-I). The proposition was exciting and one that I was hopeful of seeing. In hindsight I would have preferred to see Curlin run in l'Arc - especially in light of Zarkava's historic performance. I would have liked to see it because it hasn't been done before. And I would have liked to see it because it would have Curlin, our best, meet Europe's best on their turf, literally. At the time I imagine most (myself included) believed that Curlin would go on to win his turf debut in the Grade I Man O' War, even though he was challenging two previous B.C. champions. So how does this impact the Breeder's Cup? One of the major concerns - if not the reason - Curlin was to skip the B.C. (aside from the chance to make history) was the Pro-Ride synthetic surface that was in the process of being installed at Santa Anita. One might reason that now that we can reasonably assume we'll see Curlin and Big Brown in the Classic the shine would be restored, but there is more fallout to a synthetic B.C. Zito won't be sending any horses and he has a few that should be attending. One of those is Commentator. I am not as big a believer in him as many but he should be there in the dirt mile, maybe even the classic. Bobby Frankel also expressed some ambivalence about the surface. And though that may not be the reason Vineyard Haven isn't going (as of this writing) it was a consideration. I imagine it was a large consideration since they ran in the Champagne last Saturday. Being only three weeks from B.C. boy's day it's doubtful he was considering running Vineyard Haven in both. And these won't be the only defections due to the surface. And let's keep in mind that if both Big Brown and Curlin did not have pedigrees that suggested turf one or both may not be running.

I had actually liked the synthetic surfaces. I'm merely trying to highlight reasons why I believe the B.C. is going to be less than definitive this year. I became a big fan of Hollywood Park because of its' synthetic track. But I see a problem looming on the horizon because of synthetics. Just when it seemed we may get uniform drug rules in most racing jurisdictions, creating a more even racing flat, resulting in more crossover competition nationwide, we may be faced with a dichotomy in racing based on track surfaces. Will we have horses refusing to meet each other unless it's on their preferred surface? We already do. I have to think that some of the connections of horses that will run in The Breeder's Cup have reservations because of the surface. How will this play itself out in the industry? I think some ought to start thinking about this.

There has always been posturing and differences in tracks, circuits and their respective horses. There has always been East vs. West. But, eventually the twain would meet somewhere to have it out, to settle the score, at least once. This year it appears we will be lucky as all signs point to Curlin and Big Brown running in the Classic (they may have some 'Navigation' problems but I'll save the analysis for another time). But in the future 'showdowns' may be the exception rather than the rule. We saw the beginnings of this trend this year when the connections of Colonel John and other West Coast colts had to decide whether to come East to run on dirt. The more the synthetics are ran on the more an undeniable bias toward horses with some turf pedigree becomes evident. I fear a scenario where dirt runners and 'synthesizers' will never meet. That will be nothing but bad for racing. The synthetics ( I had believed) were meant to simulate (replace) dirt, not grass. After all if it were grass that was being simulated we would be eliminating turf courses not dirt tracks. Are we just unknowingly creating another division in racing? To me it seems so.

I had always been on the fence but leaning pro on synthetics, but I have changed my mind. Obviously there is something very different between running on synthetics and running on dirt. There is something not so very different between running on synthetics and grass. Do we really want to breed the ability of our race horses to run on dirt out of the thoroughbred? I think we need to embrace the difference in the two abilities not eliminate one. I think it would be a disservice to the breed and to the fans if that were to become the trend.

As I have been writing this The Blood Horse has reported news that Churchill plans a "major" announcement on Wednesday. It is presumably about CD hosting the 2010 Breeders Cup. I only hope that is all of the news. I hope we are not about to hear about the first Synthetic Derby!

I have jumped off the fence and have landed in dirt! If some tracks stop trying to speed up the surface so that it resembles a tarmac for big races that would probably go a long way toward solving the breakdown problem. I have to believe that they can make dirt tracks as safe as synthetics. In any case I think that 'going synthetic' should be thought out a little more before steamrolling ahead without a thought toward how it may impact the future of the sport or the breed.

addendum: (added Tue. morning) Apparently Zito would have considered sending Commentator but he's not 100% [DRF]. Regardless, it doesn't change my thinking.


Anonymous said...

would they prefer rerunning Monmouth 2007? or, how about Curlin breaking down in the stretch on National TV. maybe 75% less likely to happen on pro-ride. is this really anything new? this or that owner failing to bring their horse. in Zito's case my personal guess there's more to do with steroids or lack thereof than surface.

George said...

I can agree that there seems to be a lot of favorable attributes to synthetics. However, I'm not sure about your use of statistics (i.e. 75%) I suppose those are Austrailian stats as Pro-Ride has only been with us for weeks now. Also I might point out that breakdowns do still occur on synthetics and not at a rate of 75% less. I believe that it's possible to say that any horse can break down at any time; a bad step, a bump, whatever. However, my overall points are 1) is that it must be possible that dirt tracks can be composited so that they are every bit as safe as synthetics. 2) We are responsible for the breed and though it may be possible to tweak it to be anything we desire through time, I think there is a responsibility to enhance the best of what the breed can be on natural surfaces. I will not try to argue that many dirt surfaces are "natural" in the true sense, only in the make up of their composition. But perhaps the ideal here should be to create more bone in the horse (as that of horses from an age gone by) not a 'bouncier' surface to protect a weakness that has resulted from inbreeding (my opinion). As far as Monmouth 2007? Bad luck. That's racing for you, sometimes bad luck! It happens in the best of conditions (if you're refering to George Washington) and bad conditions occur all the time. It's part of the sport and has only added to the lore over the years. Let's also aknowledge that we don't know what would have happened on a synthetic track that received that much rain. If we want perfection we should only have the Breeder's Cup at fair weather sites (isn't that wrong for racing? Horses don't mind the cold, we do.) As far as Zito goes maybe you are right I don't know. I do know had worked in the industry for quite a few years nd I have heard some bad and some good. I have never heard an "I know for sure." And let's be fair steroids have been, and at the moment still are in many jurisdictions, still legal. It's a very competitive game and a trainer would have to be risking his chosen vocation not to compete with everyone else. I would also like to say that of ALL the trainers I have seen, Zito is the most omnipresent trainer that I saw. And to the 'you never know' side of things I recently read - on one of the TBA blogs, I believe - that the Chief (Alen Jerkens) acknowledged he used Winstrol. Well, I walked hots as well as did other things at the Chiefs barn for more a half a year and I never saw a vet unless it was an emergency. I'd would have and still would still sware that he doesn't use any drugs, so there you have it: YOU NEVER KNOW!
I know this is a long response, however, I just want to say in closing that I think I undertand your sentiments. I like watching the syntetic tracks and feel they run fairly. I just don't think they are fair to the breed because there are some horses that are superior on dirt that can not run a 'lick' on synthetics. What is to happen to that sector of the breed? Shall we have only horses that would run well on turf? As far as the Arabian side of things is concerned I think that would be a crime!