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Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for ESPN.com, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010


Dirt Officially a Four-Letter Word


(CHICAGO, IL – March 29, 2010) On Saturday, the world’s richest horse race was run on an all-weather track. Meydan’s $10 million Dubai World Cup was won by Gloria de Campeao on Tapeta. Gloria de Campeao is a Brazilian-bred son of an Argentine sire. The 7-year-old horse is owned by a Swede and trained by a Frenchman in England and has won on three continents in locales as disparate as Singapore, Sao Paulo and Paris.

Tapeta, in use at Presque Isle Downs and Golden Gate Fields in the USA, is trainer Michael Dickinson’s clever composition of synthetic materials and sand, layered four to seven inches deep over a two-inch layer of porous blacktop above stone. To many horsemen, Dickinson’s invention is considered safer, more reliably consistent and superior to dirt. Nevertheless, synthetic composition racing surfaces of any make or description have made little headway at becoming the standard in North America since Turfway Park, Keeneland, Woodbine, the California tracks and Arlington Park installed them.

Gloria de Campeao has triumphed now on turf, dirt and Tapeta, a sign that a good horse is able to excel despite any footing. The sport’s seat of power is shifting to countries where horses run drug-free and dirt is a four-letter word, which makes the winner's record more noteworthy. Regardless, many other horses that perform well on dirt seem to struggle on substitute surfaces. Ultimately, Thoroughbred breeders will have to figure out which horses do and which do not. Their future success will depend on it.

Horses and their family planners aren’t alone in having to adapt to the new surfaces. Horseplayers, too, must learn how to pick winners in races that are run on surfaces they’re not familiar with. Needless to say, the rules that apply aren’t conventional. You can wait all you want for tracks to revert to how they all used to be, but that’s wishful thinking. As things stand, half of horse racing is technologically advancing while the other half is stuck in a time warp. Those who arrive last to any trend become losers.

Outside the United States, all-weather racetracks are viewed mainly positively. Although turf is overwhelmingly preferred, the Europeans, Asians and Australians understand that huge amounts of prize money are available at racecourses that have installed synthetic racetracks. More Grade 1 races were contested on all-weather surfaces in the USA than on grass. Graded top-level synthetic track races in this country accounted for almost $34 million in purses. Clearly, Meydan is not a geographic exception.

Dickinson explains on his Web site that if Tapeta had been used for more than 100 years as dirt has been, he would be having difficulty switching racetrack owners from Tapeta to dirt. They would be arguing that dirt would cause more injuries to horses and jockeys, be more susceptible to weather changes, result in too many racing biases to satisfy bettors who want consistency and cause more fields to be strung out on the track with little change of places during a race.

Nevertheless, the wisdom of installing synthetic tracks everywhere is debatable. Predictably, those people whose voice should count the most – aka the horseplayers - are split 50-50 on the issue. Jeff Platt, president of the 1600 member Horseplayers Association of North America, is ambivalent about synthetic tracks. But he disagrees with Dickinson’s claim that man-made surfaces offer consistency. Platt believes that unlike a dirt track, the same synthetic track will create different running styles from day to day. “Even track maintenance men don’t know why,” Platt contended in a telephone interview.

Maury Ezra, one of Platt’s HANA Board colleagues, has a more practical view of the situation. “The bottom line with synthetics is that you can’t love a horse,” he believes. But both Platt and Ezra admit that their biggest payoffs have resulted from betting horses on artificial surfaces. They believe that the competition in the pari-mutuel pool isn’t as stiff because many good handicappers, frustrated with new challenges, are staying away from betting races held on synthetic tracks.

Statistics indicate that handle suffers initially when racetracks install a synthetic surface. In the first year of each change-over, the win rate on favorites has dipped below 30 percent. Platt contends that a speed-favoring runner, which is how many horses are bred in this country, can’t just dash out and hide from the competition as easily in artificial going as it can on dirt. And he knows from his computer records of 55,000 races that a lesser percentage of synthetic track runners fail to complete their starts.

Yet, the hubbub over synthetic racetracks seems to have barely gained breeders’ notice. Good conformation, a compatible pedigree and a strong book of mares remain the key factors when selecting a sire.

“There’s not enough data to tell which stallions are throwing horses that will run well on synthetics,” said Brian Collins, the Director of Bloodstock Services for Denali Stud. “You can’t breed for every single artificial surface that’s out there. People are buying because of State-bred programs or they like the athleticism or the pedigree, but not for synthetic tracks.”

Mike Akers, Chairman of Dapple Bloodstock, concurred. “The breeding decision is not that specialized to identify horses that will excel on a synthetic surface,” he said. “When we had only two surfaces, over time, we figured out which horses were better on one or the other. This will happen eventually with three,” Akers predicted.

Few people believe that synthetic tracks are doomed, despite the resistance of some horsemen to change, the hesitancy of the breeding industry to promote synthetic track-biased stallions and recent rumblings in California that racetracks there will re-install dirt racing strips. “The safety issue trumps everything else,” Akers believes. He is probably right.

On the other hand, when the world’s greatest horse racing becomes primarily a foreign activity, it’s more likely that economics will determine the future. The events of this past weekend predict it.

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Written by Vic Zast

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