A Dig At Dirt - By Mark Popham

The best European result, six wins at the 2009 Breeders’ Cup, means euphoria? Not necessarily so.

Santa Anita, with its Pro-Ride synthetic surface, may have evened things up between the Europeans and North Americans—five wins to the transatlantic invaders in 2008 and a record six out of 14 this year, and that was without Coolmore and Godolphin being at their most effective.

But reverting to dirt in 2010 at Churchill Downs and the likelihood of the same at Belmont Park in 2011 is a distinct turn-off.

While turf has always been no problem—except in cases of excessive heat and humidity—dirt is now the big no-no of world racing.

Even Dubai in 2010 will have switched to Tapeta over dirt at the new Meydan, yet many of the major racetracks in the United States have failed to change their traditional surface to an artificial one, which is both safer and more widely accepted worldwide.

The refusal to face up to global trends threatens to leave American racing, still uniquely also heavily dependent on medication, even more isolated than it has been previously.

Despite the Breeders’ Cup’s inability to provide free entry and hospitality to overseas contenders—unlike Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore—European raiders have flocked to the Breeders’ Cup, with 31 last year and 30 in 2009.

This is because American horses were seen as providing the best opposition, and the Breeders’ Cup therefore lived up to its title of World Championships.

But a World Championships on dirt is a non sequitur. Artificial surfaces, which have provided training for some 30 years in Europe, recently celebrated their 20th anniversary of racing in Britain and have spread to France, Ireland, and beyond.

There are no dirt surfaces in countries with quality racing outside of America and the adherents of such tracks—be they breeders, owners, trainers or racetracks—may have to suffer temporary economic upset if a change is made, but they would be much better off in the long term.

While California has changed to artificial surfaces through mandate, other jurisdictions, most notably Keeneland, have also chosen to do so.

It is time that such iconic venues as Churchill Downs and Belmont Park faced up to their responsibilities to the racing public and the sport in general and take the only possible way forward.

No matter how many diehards there are, those in charge have a duty that transcends narrow mindsets and temporary economic hardship to provide racing surfaces that will both
satisfy public opinion and give horses safer racing.

High levels of fatalities are grist to the mill of increasing vocal animal activists, and artificial surfaces are much safer in this regard.

For this reason alone they should be adopted, but the other big argument in their favor is worldwide acceptance.

Santa Anita hosted the Breeders’ Cup three years prior to 2008 on dirt—in 1986, 1993, and 2003—and the European winning tallies respectively were one, one, and three. The 2003 victories of Six Perfections, High Chaparral, and Islington were all achieved on turf.

This year two of the six wins—Man of Iron (Marathon) and Vale of York (grade I Juvenile)—came on the Pro-Ride surface, with strong contenders from Europe in virtually all the other races on the artificial surface.

The Classic (gr. I) would not have been such a good race without Rip Van Winkle and Twice Over, while the same applied to the Dirt Mile (gr. I) in which European runner Mastercraftsman was sent off as the favorite.

I fear we will see a depleted challenge from Europe in the next two years if the main surface is dirt, with the principal challenges being restricted to the turf races, which have provided the great majority of European victories at the Breeders’ Cup.

Both American and European racing will be poorer for that.

Hopefully, Breeders’ Cup officials will insist the World Championships beyond 2012 are run on an artificial surface or else the title will become meaningless.

European horses have been as good as American horses for years, if not better, but dirt is not a level playing field, whereas Pro-Ride, Polytrack, and Tapeta nearly are.

Mark Popham is the European correspondent for The Blood-Horse.

Recent Posts

More Blogs