Scenario: Square Eddie wins the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Actually, you can add Street Hero and Midshipman to that scenario. Question: Do you vote for the Juvenile/Breeders’ Futurity winner or the Juvenile/Norfolk winner or the Juvenile/Del Mar Futurity winner – none of whom have ever run on dirt – for the Eclipse Award or do you vote for the Hopeful/Champagne winner, Vineyard Haven, who won both impressively and became only the second horse in 26 years to sweep the two most historic 2-year-old stakes in America?
The answer for each Eclipse voter will be based on the relevance they put on synthetic surfaces, and the result will reveal a great deal regarding the mindset of the voters.
So, will victories over a synthetic surface in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and either the Breeders’ Futurity, Norfolk or Del Mar Futurity merit a national championship over dominating scores in the Hopeful and Champagne? The traditionalist with a sense of history likely will vote for Vineyard Haven, which is the way this traditionalist is leaning heavily towards, unless something incredibly monumental happens in the Juvenile to make me change my mind. So, I’m holding off until then. Yes, traditionalists may be regarded by some as old fogeys with old ideas, but in this day and age we need to cling on to some semblance of tradition.
Racing on synthetic surfaces still is in its infantile stages, and until we can understand how it affects the sport in regard to producing true champions and to what degree it affects the breed and form, we should think carefully before we raise it to a plateau so lofty that it determines championships. We don’t even know how form on different synthetic surfaces – Polytrack, Cushion Track, Pro-Ride, and Tapeta – relate to each other.
This in no way is meant to detract from the above-mentioned synthetic horses. I couldn’t be happier for Square Eddie’s connections Paul Reddam and Doug O’Neill, two of the nicest guys in the sport, and would love to see them at Churchill Downs next spring with Square Eddie, who was devastating in the Breeders’ Futurity. But trying to compare Square Eddie and Vineyard Haven is like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. At this point in time I am unable to do it, so I would have to lean toward Vineyard Haven…again, at this point. But it would take an absolutely monstrous performance in the Juvenile by any of the three to get me to even think about changing my mind. I realize to some this may sound narrow-minded, but no more so than the trainers who refuse to send horses to the Breeders’ Cup because of the synthetic surface. No more so than the trainers who send their horses and afterward blame the surface if their horse runs an uncharacteristically poor race. No more so than the bettors who wager on the Breeders’ Cup as if it’s going to be a normal series of races and then realize that it’s not a normal series of races as they’re ripping up their tickets.
The Breeders’ Cup “dirt” races may very well turn out to be extremely formful and I will reserve judgment until it’s over. But I will approach it with apprehension until then.
Horses like Zenyatta, Colonel John, Well Armed, Tiago, and Student Council among others all have established good form on both dirt and synthetic. But what about a classy grade I-winning mare like Unbridled Belle never picking her feet up in the Spinster Stakes (gr. I), or Hystericalady, a dominating winner on dirt, but 0-for-five on synthetic and having to struggle with Santa Teresita to finish second in the Lady’s Secret? Those are just two of many such cases. Then there is a filly winning the Alcibiades off only two grass starts, and grass fillies dominating the Spinster. Where in the world did Carriage Trail’s performance come from? There no indication in the slightest she was going to do what she did. Who runs 1 1/8 miles in 1:46 3/5, closing the last eighth in :12 flat while drifting across the entire track and finishing closer to the outside rail? Some of these races are just plain weird and do not resemble dirt racing. The Goodwood Stakes field, all within five lengths of each other and spread out across the track in the stretch, looked as if they were coming down the straightaway at Newmarket.
On the opposite end, what about a top-class California graded stakes winner (on dirt) like Arson Squad finishing out of the money in all seven of his races on a synthetic surface and then finally being sent east and winning the Meadowlands Cup by 2 1/2 lengths in his first start back on dirt?
It’s all trial and error right now. While Santa Anita bettors likely have not had many problems deciphering form because all the horses have been racing primarily over synthetic tracks, what is going to happen when horseplayers all over America have to solve the Breeders’ Cup puzzle, with dozens of horses shipping in from the east and Europe with no synthetic experience?
That is why when determining champions this year, just remember Websters’ definition of the word synthetic: “Not real or genuine.”
That’s not my definition. Talk to the people who called the surface synthetic. I’m talking strictly about form here and what is “real and genuine;” not about safety. The latter no doubt is the more important of the two, but studies in that area still are inconclusive, especially considering the fatal breakdown comparison between Saratoga (none on dirt during the races and none reported in the morning) and Del Mar (a total of eight, most of them during the races). Once they prove for certain that synthetic surfaces are safer, then we’ll be happy with those findings and cope the best we can with all its foibles.
If Curlin or Big Brown win the Classic in their synthetic track debut, it would enhance or at least confirm their greatness, whether due to their talent or versatility. If neither perform well and are beaten by a synthetic specialist like Go Between, is that going to prove anything?
That is why this year’s Breeders’ Cup should be fascinating, challenging, bewildering, and hopefully entertaining. But should it really be about deciding championships? That is a question each of us will have to answer.