Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Synthetic Tracks and the Future of American Thoroughbred Racing
ARCADIA, Calif, October 27, 2008--Because readers sometimes see and believe what they wish, and because sometimes me no write so good, allow this amplification on some of the comments we received concerning the impact that synthetic-track racing had on the silver anniversary edition of Breeders’ Cup and the future of American racing as we know it. First, some reiterations.
I don’t hate synthetic surfaces, which is not to say I like them, either. It’s been a few years now and I’m still ambivalent. Does this mean ultimately that I don’t view the safety of horse and rider as preeminent? Let me answer that by posing another question, in the immortal words of Vincent LaGuadia Gambini. “You were serious about that?”
Competitors in every sport should enjoy safe journeys. But the widely accepted notion that “stuff happens” is somehow unacceptable when it comes to racing Thoroughbreds is not only unreasonable but patently unfair. If we can accept that even on perfectly macadamed roadways over which no one speeds or drives impaired accidents will occur, why isn‘t that true at the horse track?
While early exit polling appears to indicate that synthetics are “safer” than conventional dirt, the prevailing wisdom falls well within the margin of error. There is much evidence, empirical and otherwise, that synthetics play a role in the increase of soft tissue injuries. And, remember, there were recently five catastrophic breakdowns on the Pro-Ride surface in the run-up to Breeders’ Cup, four during training hours.
Of greater significance were televised reports that the Pro-Ride surface reached 147 degrees in the heat of the Southern California sun. What sort of toxic brew is bubbling beneath the surface? There must be a reason why some jockeys ride wearing surgical masks at Woodbine. And that would be Toronto, not Los Angeles.
I spoke with a foreign photographer the night the event ended. He had been working out and about the surface all week. He said that when he knelt down to snap a photo, he could feel the heat of the surface burning through his pants--not that it was just too hot, but that he experienced a burning sensation. And that he and others had been experiencing respiratory issues all week, i.e., troubled breathing. Has anyone asked the horses?
I say learn how to make dirt better, safer. But even if man can improve on God’s formula, will it prevent accidents from happening? That’s the inconvenient truth, why they’re called accidents.
With respect to track bias, I’m learning to get over it. If you expect to continue playing the game, you had better, too. Never underestimate the relationship between confidence and wagering success. Never. Take a proactive attitude. Like Yogi says, you can observe a lot just by watching.
And it’s not like Keeneland was a fair surface pre-poly, or that wet tracks don’t give speed horses a significant advantage.
My biggest problem with all weather surfaces is that pace loses it efficacy. On many synthetics, a controlled slow pace in no way guarantees victory with the same regularity and to a large measure removes pacing strategy from the equation. I didn’t attend the races every day during Breeders’ Cup week. When I did I never saw a frontrunning winner. Having snuck into racetracks since the time I was 15, this doesn’t seem right.
Another variable has me conflicted. I love it that more races are wide open and that laying, not playing, the favorite makes eminently more sense. And I love, too, that the surface brings fields closer together. In midstretch, it feels like everyone’s still in with a chance, frontrunners notwithstanding. But, given usurious takeout rates, I hate that predicting the outcome of races is more difficult.
Interesting the relationship between turf and synthetic success. I learned from my European colleagues long ago that in grass races nothing is more important than the ground. The same is true of synthetics. Not only is Polytrack different from Cushion Track is different from Tapeta, etc., etc., but not even all Polytracks are created equal.
We have not seen the end of dirt racing in America, or in the Breeders’ Cup for that matter. After a Santa Anita repeat, the circus moves to Churchill Downs in 2010. There will be an artificial surface installed at Churchill the day the Toronto Maple Leafs open their season in hell. There now are three surfaces in thoroughbred racing. We are just beginning to see the emergence of some bloodlines having synthetic-surface success.
I am neither anxious nor desirous of jettisoning centuries of traditional American dirt racing. But there never will be a day when the sport reverts back to two surfaces, even if it were grass and synthetic only. More actually might be better. It’s certainly adds to handicapping’s intellectual challenges.
As to the perceived catering to Europeans in an event designed by American breeders to definitively crown North American champions, it’s been European participation that has keyed the success of Breeders’ Cup as a concept from day one. Not to forget the victories of Lashkari and Royal Heroine at Hollywood Park in the ‘84 inaugural. And isn’t it true that if you seek recognition as the best you have to beat the best? Isn’t that the essence of all sport?
Unwittingly, in their worship of the bottom line, Breeders’ Cup officials might wind up saving the sport instead of, as has been oft-stated, killing it. Like it or not, fair or not, Thoroughbred racing is on life support. If greater foreign participation in Breeders’ Cup means expanded worldwide interest in what happens between the rails of America’s racetracks, how can this be a bad thing? It may turn out to be the only unintended consequence the sport can live with.
Tomorrow: New York Racing and Breeders' Cup
Written by John Pricci
Sunday, October 26, 2008
This Breeders’ Cup Changed the Game Forever
ARCADIA, Calif., October 25--This time the crowd, who welcomed back its heroes all afternoon long, as it did Friday, applauded before the race. That’s because the nine horse was the champ. He goes by the name Curlin.
And with five furlongs remaining to run, and with the pace strong, Robby Albarado asked Curlin for his life, as the jockeys say, and the reigning Horse of the Year responded, sweeping up on the outside to take command. On 11 other occasions, the tack worked.
The momentum might have carried Curlin to the lead but it might not have sustained his run at a second consecutive championship. It could be worse than that. The legacy that his connections were crafting for him might have wilted in the heat of the California sun, over a surface that seemed unkind.
“It was a turf race,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “It absolutely was the Pro Ride surface that got him beat. “Maybe he’s not a synthetic surface specialist. I don’t know," said the main on his back. "He was paddling around.”
The rest of Robby Albarado’s explanation rang true as well. “Curlin did what he does, going by horses. He made his run but got a little late [tired] in the stretch. I can’t answer whether or not the track had anything to do with it.”
Whether or not the long season, punctuated by a trip to Dubai, took its toll is another potential explanation. But he simply remained one-paced after getting the lead. He kept trying, like champions do, but simply was outrun in the late stages.
A rival jockey was saying this about the mighty Curlin this week: “He’s a big, lumbering individual,” the rider said. “This surface doesn’t help horses like that.”
Clearly, it didn’t help him yesterday. When his rivals closed in, pressuring him to run faster, he struggled. He strained into his bridle but the fleet closers were coming faster now. The Europeans came loaded and laid it on the entire home team.
Five wins plus five seconds equals dominance.
And if you think this year was tough on the home team, wait until 2009. The Breeders’ Cup is coming back to Santa Anita as will the Europeans, en masse. Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator, the Classic Euro exacta, are just the beginning.
And maybe invaders will come from the other direction. Not all Far Eastern-based runners are handled as curiously as Casino Drive.
Twenty five years ago, the Breeders’ Cup was created as an end of year series of races to crown champions in competition, further defining themselves against some of the world’s best.
Synthetic surfaces are going to change all that. They are the great international equalizer. Yesterday, at the Great Race Place, the American Thoroughbred game changed forever.
America was the place where you could find the best bloodstock on the planet, before the Europeans and the Japanese and oil rich sheikhs figured they could bring money and raid the cupboard. Now, with the help of artificial surfaces, they will come and raid the purse coffers, too.
American racing had better start thinking about a way to reinvent itself. By all evidence, the best horses in the world may not live here anymore.
Best Breeders' Cup Ever?
Immediacy makes for strange perspective. Unlike a handful of my colleagues who’ve covered every one, this was my 21st, Breeders’ Cup, missing only Woodbine, Hollywood and two at Churchill.
But even if the one conducted this weekend at the foothills of the San Gabriels wasn’t the
best, it clearly was my favorite.
Maybe it was the low expectations, given the surface controversy. And it’s such a difficult event to cover. So many horses, so many superfectas, so little time. But there was a certain sense of foreboding. The specter of Eight Belles lingers.
And the panacea, the artificial surface? There were five catastrophic breakdowns during the Oak Tree run-up to Breeders Cup, four during training hours. To appreciate that impact, consider that in 36 days of racing at Saratoga this summer, there was one fatality. It came during a race, on turf, a horse’s natural, kinder surface.
The founders envisioned seven defining events. The branders upped the ante double. And the added races were not all of championship caliber. Six races are ungraded. It was worship at the altar of parimutuel handle.
But it was more, too. I failed to appreciate the notion of a festival atmosphere that two days can generate. That one the branders hit clear out of the park. And who could have known that both days would be marked by such high performance levels.
And say this for the synthetics. It sure brings most of the horses together, although if speed is your thing you might consider taking up another pastime. Me? I’m planning on attending my 22nd, looking to repeat something like this:
Most thought a European would win the Marathon. They were right And wrong. But what most American bettors didn’t appreciate, class notwithstanding, was that Sixties Icon was too slow and ill suited to the prevailing pace scenario. But not Muhannek, the fresh, sharp, pointed and faster invader, who, perfectly positioned, fired, then withstood late finishing Church Service. Patrick Smullen, who could do know better than fifth in seven previous Cup rides, is off the Breeders’ Cup duck. “Everything went to plan,” Smullen explained. “I wanted to put myself in the position that I could go on the back turn. The horse fought all the wire to the wire. It worked out beautifully.” It was the first Cup win for trainer Ralph Beckett.
* * *
You could almost see the arm pumps at Aqueduct just as Desert Code crossed the line. Richard Migliore had this one coming. He was supposed to win another Breeders Cup turf race, the Mile, on Artie Shiller, but an injury sidelined him and Garrett Gomez picked up the mount and the win. So it was some fated karma when Gomez, who rode Desert Code for David Hofmans in the G3 Morvich Handicap last out, opted for Idiot Proof yesterday and Migliore, who rode Desert Code to his most recent win down the hill here last March, reunited with the 4-year-old and timed the winning run precisely, nailing Diabolical right on the post. For Migliore, the 14th time was the charm, his best previous finish a third on the Irish filly Mourjane 23 years ago. The hill makes this race what it is. Around one turn, It would be just another turf sprint. Good show.
* * *
The favorite could have been luckier. Well Armed found himself in a jackpot virtually the whole way, especially when jammed and forced to steady wide into the first turn, but it wouldn’t have mattered. He raced empty throughout. Meanwhile, Two Step Salsa outran some very quick older horses early, repulsed challenges, and at headstretch kept going and going, even though you knew the pace would take a toll. Garrett Gomez must have known it too. Third to the favorite in in the G1 Goodwood, Gomez bided his time until launching his mount into high gear a quarter mile from home, Albertus Maximus grinding out the win all the way home; Gomez’s second Cup score in two days.
* * *
Goldikova was supposed to be over the top, ill suited to the ground and course configuration, too short for her late brilliant turn of foot. Better make that electric turn of foot. Daytona had mid-moved to the lead and the race was on in earnest. Kip Deville, not as keen early on as you’d like to see him, was ground saving behind Goldikova. But at headstretch Cornelio Velasquez tipped the defending champion wide and looked a winner midway home. But the French filly found a seam and Olivier Peslier guided her through and she exploded, opening two lengths in an instant. Trainer Freddie Head, who trains her and rode the first dual Breeders’ Cup winner, the great Miesque--the filly he’d been comparing Goldikova to all week--was correct in his assessment. Next year she turns 4, Can’t wait to see her kick when she, you know, matures. Head became the first person to ever ride and train a Breeders’ Cup winner.
* * *
All week, the West Coast wise guys were questioning the quality of the horses coming out of the Norfolk. Don’t think they will any longer. How good was Midshipman? Sent away from the 11 post by Garrett Gomez, the colt battled on a strong pace throughout, opened a little more daylight into the stretch, then withstood a game, re-rallying Square Eddie. Indeed, the Pro-Ride had been playing glibly these afternoons but anytime a baby runs a mile and a sixteenth in 140.96, that’s a serious run. And so GG rode a natural double, giving Bob Baffert six BC wins, including his second Juvenile (Vindication in ‘02). At this rate, Baffert might become a synthetic fan after all. Not quite sure, however, Midshipman nailed down an Eclipse title. He owns two victories to one over Street Hero, the Norfolk winner. But it will depend on how voters view dual G1 winner Vineyard Haven, who skipped this dance, and which horses come back to dance again in the Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood in December.
* * *
The Breeders’ Cup committee must have known something, scheduling the Juvenile Turf after the Juvenile. With Aidan O’Brien’s Westphalia on the inside beneath Johnny Murtaugh, and John Gosden’s Donativum on the outside, Frankie Dettori up, the head-to-head final yards battle was a beauty, Donativum winning the sprint home. Perhaps Westphalia was best, given the trip, breaking sideways and losing valuable forward position. Midway of the backside, however, Murtaugh asked Westphalia to move closer, which he did, but was forced to wait, again. The combination of all this might have been the difference in the losing head margin, taking nothing from the winner. It was a grand welcome home for Gosden, who came from Great Britain to California, enjoyed a successful career, then returned oversees. He has a reputation for not firing many blanks when pointing for an engagement. It was well earned. Donativum fired a big one all right.
* * *
A triple for Gomez, a double for Baffert, a repeat victory by defending Sprint champion, and a Breeders’ Cup Sprint record of 1:07.08. The disappointing news? It didn’t threaten the Santa Anita record of 1:06.53 set by Bob Black Jack in February, a period when all records fell. The situation was so dire then that racing was cancelled while the track was repaired, eventually leading to the installation of Pro-Ride. The pace was fast, of course, but this behemoth would have run down the group under any circumstances. His mid-turn momentum carried him extremely wide into the lane and, despite the ground loss, you knew he’d win. As the official was posted, there still was no word whether Baffert removed the plate protecting Lute’s quarter crack. But this much is clear. It wasn’t the Midnight Lute that raced at Del Mar this summer but more like the version who inhaled the sloppy competition last year at Monmouth Park.
* * *
In the early days of Breeders Cup, provincial Americans had a jolly time poking fun of European riders. “Hey, could you stand up just a little taller, please?” “Hey, could you stop trying to imitate a monkey doing the nasty with a football?” Well, they put on quite the show yesterday. Smullern could not have timed it better in the Marathon. Murtaugh and Dettori looked like Cordero and Velazquez out there. This guy Ryan Moore isn’t too shabby, either, finally winning a G1 for Conduit, the budding three-year-old’s fourth victory in six starts this year. Credit Michael Stoute, a.k.a. Sir Michael Stoute, for that. Moore timed Conduit’s run perfectly, the Irish-bred colt pounding the firm ground to victory, benefiting from a strong pace that frankly saw Murtaugh moving aggressively and prematurely with a half mile still left to run.
Written by John Pricci
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Another Opening, Another Show
Arcadia, Ca., October 24--It’s hard to conceive what the silver anniversary of Breeders’ Cup can do for an encore, such was the magnitude of the opening act.
Ladies Day was unqualified success. It’s what happens when some of the world’s best race horses assemble in one place for the purpose of deciding who’s best.
For all the tweaking and for all the missteps along the way, it about the horses and what happens between the fences. It always is.
In the opener, Ventura spotted her rivals a head start and Trevor Denman, whose particular brand of race calling expertise nailed it. He picked up Ventura approaching the turn for home and virtually called her a winner with a quarter mile left run.
The cliché is that race horses makes liars of us all. Not yesterday. Not in the Filly & Mare Sprint. In gear under Garrett Gomez, her late run was relentless, leaving little doubt as to which was the best female sprinter in this land or any other.
It was riveting. Gomez, who has a ride in every Breeders’ Cup race, took the possibility of a shutout off the table.
Things like this are odds-on to happen in this game: Trainer Chad Brown, making his debut Breeders’ Cup and keeping faith with his young rider, rising star Jose Lezcano, watched his filly run down the pacesetter and keep Heart Shaped at bay, winning the race of his young career on the same day his grandfather was buried.
Angels ride on shoulders and sometimes figure in results. A great finish. Brown’s mentor, Bobby Frankel, won the Breeders’ Cup 25 lid-lifter. The student completed the early Breeders’ Cup double.
Chris Paasch, who is calling it a training career next year and finally named a horse just right, watched Stardom Bound circle the field like some hoop on a barrel, her run as relentless of Ventura’s.
There could not have been a dry eye in that winner’s circle. And Mike Smith, who no one ever things of when the names of great riders are conjured up, won another big race in a career full of big races. Stardom Bound: Juvenile Champion 2008.
In case you didn’t know, too much knowledge can be as damaging as too little. Everyone was worried that the sweltering heat would wilt the Europeans. But what chance did Forever Together have?
She had the look of a miler, not a 10-furlong filly, not in this company, anyway, and she’s a non-sweater, the kind of horse you ship away from heat for more moderate climes.
But here she comes, beneath the young American turf ace via France, Julien Leparoux, who simply hand urged his filly to the lead and an Eclipse title, beating former champion Wait A While and two-time Canadian champion Sealy Hill. So deep the field that the North of the Border heroine was sent away at 48-1.
And they saved the best for last, another newly crowned champion who won her title by coming from last early. Another disdainful victory by Zenyatta, a perfect 9-for-9, Smith now 2-for-2 on the day with fillies who come from the clouds.
A colleague said it best when he mentioned how he disagreed with those who said she deserved to run on a Saturday, not Friday. “She deserved her own day in the spotlight.”
And now maybe she’ll begin getting her due. She needs four more to catch Personal Ensign, who also saved her best effort for the Breeders’ Cup, rolling a perfect 13.
Pacific time: 10:10 AM today. Can’t wait.
Written by John Pricci