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?
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