Pro-Ride, Pro-Ride and more Pro-Ride. Considering it was installed only about two months ago and this will be the first Breeders' Cup held on a synthetic surface, it is all anyone here at Santa Anita is talking about.
How will some of the traditional dirt horses handle the Pro-Ride? Will it even the playing field for the Euros, especially in the Classic? How is the new surface playing at the current Oak Tree meet? These are all questions people are asking. Some of them won't be answered until later this week, but with five only days until the Breeders' Cup, I decided we could all use a refresher course on Pro-Ride. The logical person to talk to was Ian Pearse - the man who invented the surface and is responsible for reconstituting Santa Anita's previous Cushion Track surface into the one we see today.
Upon arriving at Santa Anita for the first time Monday morning, my initial reaction of the Pro-Ride is that it looks a lot different than the Polytrack I'm used to seeing at Keeneland. It is much more brown than most synthetics and looks like a more traditional dirt track. But that was only an impression from a physical standpoint. I asked Pearse, who is Australian and first developed Pro-Ride 20 years ago for his dressage arena, to explain some of the specifics about the surface that will dominate discussion all week.
JS: People's reaction about Pro-Ride during the current Oak Tree meet has been positive for the most part. What have you been hearing?
IP: It's been very positive. The main thing they are saying is that track's resiliency has been very surprising. They are blown away by how much spring it gives. Also, in racing to date, there doesn't seem to be much bias. Horses are winning on the lead, from behind and on the rail. It's proven to be unbiased so far.
JS: One of the complaints we hard in the first few days of racing is that riders say the track gets very hot. Have you heard this from many people?
IP: Initially yes. In the early part of the meet we had weather in the high 90s and people we saying it was a bit warm. As the temperature on the track got around 105, we watered it and (the temperature) significantly dropped. People said it was much better.
Now, the weather is in the mid-80s and low 90s and no one is talking about it anymore. It was really that first week. But we'll continue to monitor it through the week and take the ground temperature.
(As a side note to this, this morning I asked trainer Eoin Harty about the heat on the track and he confirmed it wasn't an issue anymore "It is totally being overblown. We haven't had any issues with it. People need something to talk about." Of course, at the bottom of this blog you will see that Steve Asmussen has a different opinion.)
JS: I think people tend to lump all synthetic surfaces together. Can you tell us what the main difference between Pro-Ride and the others synthetic tracks are?
IP: Well, the main difference is that our material is made from Polymetric binders, as opposed to wax. Wax, when heated, it softens. The Polymetric does not soften and therefore it is a more stable, long-term surface. We don't have to use a watering program that others use. We only use water to lower temperature when needed.
What also makes it better, in my opinion, is it has a two-phase cushion. The significance of this is the track is just as resilient on the last day of the meet as it is on the first. We don't have to do maintenance. It's better technology; more advanced. It is second-generation material.
JS: Still, there are many traditionalists that say we shouldn't have racing on synthetic surfaces. How do you respond to that?
IP: Well, the motivation for racing on synthetic surfaces is different everywhere. In Australia, there is a water shortage problem and that is why the racing industry pushed for it. Over here, the motivation was animal welfare. The lower cost of ongoing maintenance is also a factor. But as far as racing on dirt or synthetics, everyone has their preferences.
Curlin and Asmussen
After Curlin worked in :51 1/5 this morning, trainer Steve Asmussen held court for the media. I didn't get to see the Curlin breeze, but I was standing next to him as he hotwalked afterwards. As always, he looks like a physical specimen and seems very happy. As far as Curlin's liking fotr the Pro-Ride, Asmussen was pretty vague. Here is what he had to say when I asked him about his overall impressions of the surface.
"We're just trying to gather information at this point. I think at this stage, when you're talking about three-quarters speed, and gallops and breezes, the data is everything you will see in the race.
What about the heat?
"I think it's obvious that in the afternoons it does generate a great deal of heat. We've breezed him in the afternoon trying to simulate that and see if it would adversely affect him. Of course, he's not on it the amount of time he will be for the race - post parade, built-up and all that time. So it does allow for heat to be that much more of a factor. But with that being said, we're not sure of what the temperature will be that day."
**After the post position draws on Tuesday I will have my first analysis and picks of the Friday races. Look for that in the evening.