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Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Death Knell of Dirt Racing?

Let me preface my comments by stating unequivocally that I am not anti-artificial surface per se. I understand the potential upside in regards to health and safety issues for both horse and rider. However, this Breeders Cup only validated something I have suspected for quite some time now: artificial surfaces require a particular type of breeding, training and racing, and, because the BC will be held at Santa Anita next year, traditional dirt horses will be on the outside looking in at these “world championships” once again.

Over the course of Friday and Saturday, every single horse that finished in the money in “dirt” races either was a turf or artificial surface specialist, or had strong all-weather or turf breeding.

F&M Sprint:
1. Ventura (turf specialist)
2. Indian Blessing (won G2 Santa Ynez on Santa Anita artificial surface)
3. Zaftig (all-weather/turf breeding, by Gone West out of Cozzene mare)

Juvenile Filly:
1. Stardom Bound (artificial specialist)
2. Dream Empress (artificial/turf specialist)
3. Sky Diva (turf/artificial breeding; worked over Tapeta at Fair Hill)

F&M Classic:
1. Zenyatta (artificial specialist)
2. Cocoa Beach (maiden victory on turf)
3. Music Note (turf breeding; out of a Sadlers Wells mare)

Marathon:
1. Muhannak (artificial specialist)
2. Church Service (turf specialist)
3. Big Booster (artificial specialist)

Dirt Mile:
1. Albertus Maximus (artificial specialist)
2. Rebellion (artificial/turf specialist)
3. Two Step Salsa (artificial specialist crushed in only dirt attempt)

Juvenile:
1. Midshipman (artificial specialist)
2. Square Eddie (artificial/turf specialist)
3. Street Hero (artificial specialist)

Sprint:
1. Midnight Lute (won 2006 G3 Perryville, Keeneland polytrack)
2. Fatal Bullet (artificial specialist)
3. Street Boss (artificial specialist)

Classic:
1. Raven’s Pass (turf specialist)
2. Henrythenavigator (turf specialist)
3. Tiago (artificial specialist)

Certainly a number of factors affected individual performances this weekend, but it does seem odd that the showing of true dirt horses was so universally abysmal. For example, the Argentine import Lady Sprinter had run all but one of her races on dirt (winning all those on dirt, finishing eighth in her sole turf race); she finished ninth of thirteen in the F&M Sprint. Fabulous Strike had trained over Tapeta at Presque Isle and at Santa Anita, but had only 1 lifetime turf race (finishing out of the money); he managed to finished mid-field, fifth of eight in the Sprint. Pyro had failed miserably in his only previous artificial surface attempt, G1 Blue Grass at Keeneland—and arguably never raced as well afterward; he finished sixth of twelve in the Mile. Obviously, even though he managed a fourth place finish (probably on class alone), Curlin had no artificial and limited turf experience going into the Classic.

Again, there are no excuses for poor performances, and it is difficult to quantify the effect the surface had on individual showings. However, and most importantly, the results do beg the question as to whether horses solely campaigned on dirt surfaces next year should even bother to aim for the Breeders Cup. Given his turf pedigree and success, Big Brown may have done fine if he had been healthy, but what happens if next year we have a Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont stakes, or even a Triple Crown winner who can’t run a lick on ProRide? Will that make him or her any less a champion? Or more importantly will his or her connections even bother to run in the BC? Will we see a shift away from traditional dirt graded stakes by top horses intent on challenging for year-end championships?

In a masterful job of promotional propaganda and clever twisting of facts, the Breeders Cup declared the event a smashing success, crediting the perfect weather, (inflated) attendance numbers, (suspect) claims of record handle, fast race times and the total absence of serious injuries or breakdowns. They will sell this as justification for selecting to run consecutive BC meets at Santa Anita, and, whether their intent or not, their propaganda will allow California and other pro-artificial surface advocates to further trumpet the superiority of all artificial surfaces in general without serious, long-term scientific study to substantiate such claims.

We may very well have witnessed the death knell of true dirt racing this weekend, and for that all American horse racing fans should take pause.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good post Valerie. I definitely share your concerns. The problem as I see it has to do with genetic diversity of the breed. As more graded stakes move to synthetic, we will lose dirt sire lines such as Seattle Slew, Halo, Broad Brush, In Reality, Damascus, etc. Even Mr. P will figure less prominently in future pedigrees. Northern Dancer will figure more prominently than he does now, which is saying something. All you have to do to see the future is compare the US and European stallion rosters of Darley/Coolmore/Juddmonte. Europe is saturated with Northern Dancer, and it's only going to get worse.

Anonymous said...

I hate to say this, but I tend to agree that next year a lot of dirt horses will or should skip these races. Atleast in 2010 they are coming back to Churchill downs, which will hopefully remain dirt. God forbid.

The Breeders Cup might call everthing this weekend a smashing success, but the numbers do not lie. The total handle was down. 112,000,000 last year in the slop, 136,000,000 two years ago at Churchill Downs, and a down to 102,000,000 at beautiful Santa Anita these past two days.

Nellie said...

Brilliant post. I'm going to finally have to open my mouth regarding concerns over artificial surfaces after this. When I handicapped the races, there were a few times when I chose to throw out a horse because of surface unfamiliarity ... horses who, any other year would have been my top picks.

My problem with the idea is that is does shut out horses who either haven't trained / raced extensively over artificial ... and since Pro-Ride is only available at Santa Anita as a racing surface, we're going to have to break those synthetic specialist down into specialists on a certain variety.

Just trying to think through all of this and form opinions is enough to cause a headache. Come up with what you think is perfect and then "but on the other hand..." pops into your head!

SaratogaSpa said...

It is crazy to determine a dirt champion on a synthetic surface.

To me there should be 3 surfaces-dirt, turf, synthetic.

As for safety, there have been 5 fatal breakdowns at Santa Anita this fall. There was no mention of this on ABC/ESPN.

malcer said...

Good article, although some your evidence is a bit questionable. Cocoa Beach, for example, had run all of her major races on conventional Dirt (though, as a Chilean-born, she likely isn't a one-dimensional dirt horse).
Synthetic surfaces place conventional dirt horses at a disadvantage, but is that really a bad thing? The overproduction of pure speedhorses is rather unequivocally identified as one of the major reasons behind the fragility of today's North American bloodstock. Just like with human athletes, focussing on pure speed creates fragile muscle machines and encourages the usage of artificial enhancements. Route horses and plotters on the other hand are more sound. If the synthetic surfaces help create racecards with more than 1 or 2 two-bend races on a regular basis (especially in SoCal, where I'd like them for this reason alone) and we at some time reach the point where the BC Marathon is run at a distance which isn't commonly considered intermediate in other major racing jurisdictions, I think that'll be just what the doctor ordered.

Valerie said...

Minor point about Cocoa Beach's "major" races on dirt: the fact is they first raced her on turf in Chile (January 12, 2007), and whether a maiden effort or not, she has run on turf. But I agree the evidence I gave is hardly a slam-dunk. Still, it gives us food for thought, yes?

As for the direction breeding may take, I'll leave that for experts, but I totally agree that change--particularly towards staminia and away from pure speed--would not be a bad thing.

Overall, this Breeders Cup and the success of European runners has long-term implications we haven't even begun to explore. Good discussion! Let's hear some more ideas.

rather rapid said...

from what i saw this weekend, "the death knell of dirt racing" might actually be a good thing. while the concern is understandable, i'd agree there's zero evidence to date that dirt horses are unable to race on artificial surface. that Asmussen or Zito or Plecher get beat and blame it on the surface, what else is new?

Keith - Triple Dead Heat said...

Great summary of the results and I think you highlight some key points in handicapping next year's event. We would all do well to bookmark this posting.

The results go a long way in separating synthetic as a third and completely distinguished surface from dirt and turf.

Anonymous said...

Solid post Valerie. You make us all think.

I attended the BC and was overjoyed with the international fields (sure to grow), competitive races (5 furlongs was largest victory), safe conditions (0 breakdowns) and engaged crowds.

Synthetic has been a lighting rod lately. Whether it's to blame or praise, it's been the hot topic & clearly the future of racing.

Baffert and Frankel, two of the biggest naysayers of synthetics came around during the BC.

Give it time. Most of the people ripping on it are betters, who are looking out for THEIR interest, rather than the horses.

Anonymous said...

I'm responsible for the first post. Here is some data comparing the pedigrees of Juddmonte, Coolmore, and Darley stallions in the US versus Europe:

Percentage of stallions with Northern Dancer in the pedigree:

US = 22/31 = 71%
Europe = 56/58 = 97%

Percentage of stallions which descend tail-mail from ND:

US = 12/31 = 39%
Europe = 45/59 = 76%

Percentage of stallions inbred to ND:

US = 2/31 = 6%
Europe = 24/59 = 41%

Check out that last statistic regarding inbreeding. That is not good. If you are concerned about inbreeding in US-bred horses, then I think you should reconsider how much we'd like to reshape American thoroughbred biomechanics and conformation to produce horses like Europe produces. Because if we do, we will simply start bringing more European stallions over here, and our gene pool will narrow. I can guarantee you that that alone will reduce soundness. Also, do not make the mistake of saying Europe produces sounder horses; they race on a safer surface.

Believe me, I love European racing and staying races--I was very happy to see a St. Leger winner win the Turf. But there is no reason that the US needs to install synthetic surfaces to encourage stamina and soundness; you can simply create more dirt races at 12-16 furlongs. Why can't we try that first?

Amateurcapper said...

Horse racing is going back to its roots...surfaces with a bounce will be kinder to horses. Before horse racing came to the U.S., it was a turf-only game. We bastardized the essence of horse racing. Will there still be breakdowns on synthetic surfaces and turf courses? Yes. For all the hooey surrounding main track breakdowns, can anyone recall GEORGE WASHINGTON's breakdown in the slop during last year's BC Classic? How about EIGHT BELLES in this year's KY Derby? It's been said that thoroughbreds would break down racing on cotton balls. Catastrophies are ineveitable, considering their anatomy. Does anyone think that FEDERICO TESIO bred his horses with dirt racing at a mile or shorter in mind?
Fragile but brilliant UNBRIDLED'S SONG has passed on his propensity for injury to his offspring. If MIDSHIPMAN goes to Dubai, kiss this talented colt goodbye. He'll be injured preparing for, or running in, the UAE Derby on the dirt and he will be an afterthought on the first Saturday in May.

STEVE BREM said...

Interestingly, the Breeders' Cup winners list over the two days at Santa Anita was noticeable for the almost total whitewash of the Northern Dancer male line - only 2 winners out of 14. That seems to fly in the face of what people are saying here?

Anonymous said...

Steve,

Very true, perhaps I'm being alarmist. If synthetic surfaces are the future, then I hope for the health of the breed that synthetic courses truly are a "third" surface that may require something different biomechanically and pedigree-wise than dirt or turf. Having said that, if you look at the top Euro stars this year (Zarkava, Goldikova, New Approach, Henrythenavigator, Duke of Marmalade, and Raven's Pass), all have ND in them; all but Raven's Pass descend tail-male from ND; and all but RP and New Approach are in-bred to ND.

I'm beginning to think that I should be more concerned with the health of the breed in Europe than American tracks mass-adopting synthetic surfaces.

Anonymous said...

Steve,

Very true, perhaps I'm being alarmist. If synthetic surfaces are the future, then I hope for the health of the breed that synthetic courses truly are a "third" surface that may require something different biomechanically and pedigree-wise than dirt or turf. Having said that, if you look at the top Euro stars this year (Zarkava, Goldikova, New Approach, Henrythenavigator, Duke of Marmalade, and Raven's Pass), all have ND in them; all but Raven's Pass descend tail-male from ND; and all but RP and New Approach are in-bred to ND.

I'm beginning to think that I should be more concerned with the health of the breed in Europe than American tracks mass-adopting synthetic surfaces.

STEVE BREM said...

Northern Dancer did find his best expression in Europe so it is little wonder that he has a pervasive influence there, just like other breed-shapers have had in the past, e.g. St Simon, Nearco etc. Mr P (already) and Danehill are lines which will be increasingly duplicated in pedigrees, it's almost unavoidable, but nature seems to have some way of coping with this. As far as surfaces are concerned, I'm sure if a new surface becomes commonplace there's bound to be specific biomechanical adaptations over time.