Irish trainer Jim Bolger, who was nowhere near Monmouth Park on Saturday, said this in an interview with the Racing Post (UK): “George Washington's legacy, apart from being a very exciting champion, will be that from now on Breeders' Cups will only be run on Polytrack. The sooner they're all Polytrack and they cut out the drugs, it will be a better competition. If they [the Breeders' Cup] had Polytrack and turf tracks without the drugs, it would sort the men from the boys.”
Bolger may be right about the drugs, but not about Polytrack. The conditions at Monmouth on Saturday were less than ideal and the breakdown of an accomplished horse is unfortunate, but begs the question: Why was a European miler in a 10-furlong race on dirt? Clearly George Washington’s effort in the 2006 Classic at Churchill Downs indicated that he was a better horse on grass and his European record suggests that he was unsuited to the distance.
The in-vogue artificial surfaces, Polytrack, Cushion Track and Tapeta, may be a fine for training, but not for racing and two of the three the core tracks in the Breeders’ Cup rotation – Belmont Park and Churchill Downs – will remain dirt surfaces for the foreseeable future. The other, Santa Anita, has the synthetic surface, Cushion Track, as a result of the knee-jerk reaction to the injury suffered by Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness by California authorities who ordered all surfaces at the state’s major tracks to be converted. Solomon did not live in California.
In the first race ever run over the Tapeta surface at Presque Isle Downs, in Pennsylvania, during September, a horse broke down near the half-mile pole. On Monday, another horse trained by Aidan O’Brien, Scorpion, pulled up lame after a work in Australia, where he was to have run in the Melbourne Cup, and was immediately retired. O’Brien, who trained George Washington, is on a negative roll at the moment but the breakdown of another of his starts illustrates the bare face that horses break down on synthetic surfaces and grass and in the mud at Monmouth Park.
Good horses, cheap horses, sound horses and infirm horses break down. They break down in training, while racing and while galloping free in a pasture. It is a matter of physics. A half-ton, highly strung animal with ankles and underpinnings no bigger or more durable than a human’s leg running at full speed is a recipe for injury. Perhaps George Washington, fatigued from his efforts in unfamiliar circumstances at a distance beyond his range, took an awkward step and broke his leg. This is more a function of improper management of the horse than the surface over which he raced on Saturday. Barbaro’s injury to the left-hind leg suffered in the first 100 yards of the Preakness was freakish but was not caused by the racing surface at Pimlico.
The belief that synthetic surfaces are a panacea is fallacious and their installation at tracks hosting the most important races of the American season is a disservice to the sport. George Washington was the first European horse to suffer a fatal injury while running on dirt in 24 runnings of the Breeders’ Cup. It was tragic. It was upsetting. But it had nothing to do with the racing surface at Monmouth Park on Saturday.
Yet, injuries to high-profile horses in major races often result in profoundly questionable human decisions. Ruffian’s death more than 30 years ago led New York Racing Association officials to abandon the 10-furlong chute at Belmont Park – irrational and unfortunate because every race at that distance run since 1975 has begun on the first turn, a terrible place to position a starting gate. Weather-sensitive and quirky, Polytrack has profoundly changed the dynamic of racing wherever it has been installed – and not for the better. Some claim that Cushion Track is a fair surface, but the body of evidence remains incomplete and there has been little learned about Tapeta. So far, they all seem fine for training.
The first Breeders’ Cup run on an artificial surface will be the next, at Santa Anita, and Monmouth, which in the main did not deliver a particularly good performance over the weekend albeit under adverse conditions, may be the last small venue to host the event. So perhaps this George Washington-propelled discussion will be short lived.
The nature of a track’s surface is a reflection of the procedures employed those charged with its maintenance, a group that seems generally lacking in the skills of those who have groomed racetracks in the past – before the days of sealing and rolling the ground until it becomes hard and unforgiving, before anyone considered souping-up surfaces to produce fast running times on big racing days.
There are no plans to install an artificial surface at Churchill Downs or Belmont. The idea of running the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes or the Breeders’ Cup races over recycled rubber and wax is not acceptable to the American purist. The classic game here is played on dirt and has endured decade upon decade for well more than a century and while there is vast room for improvement in maintenance technique, should be preserved.