The Great Divide

By George Doria

The Europeans took five races on the B.C. card including two on the "dirt." While we have come to expect the "world" contingent of horses to do well on the turf we have more or less owned the dirt from the inception of the Breeders' Cup. This year the two biggest changes in B.C. rules (ever) seem to have shot a few holes in our illusions of dominance: no steroids and the Pro-Ride, synthetic surface.

One has to wonder if as many European horses would have shown up had the B.C. been held at Churchill or Belmont? Certainly the turf horses would have have shown up - perhaps even more of them - but I don't think the dirt invaders would have been as numerous. Though numerous may not be the best adjective to describe eight. Of course if you consider Ventura, Cocoa Beach, Cedar Mountain, Rebellion, Well Armed, Square Eddie and Champs Elysees as European that number swells to 15. All of those had started their careers overseas. Most of these have raced at least half of their careers elsewhere and all of them have only run on turf or synthetic surfaces since arriving in the U.S. By now I'm sure you can see where I am going with this post; arguing against the synthetic surface.

We would probably all agree that having as many foreign horses as possible at the Breeders' Cup should be one of the goals because it adds interest, credibility (for the claim of World Championships) competition and wagering value. But it has become obvious to all that the synthetics run much more like turf than dirt. If that's what we're looking for why not just run everything on the grass. Then you could eliminate a few races like the Dirt Mile, Sprint, Marathon, etc.. And we can fit it all into one day again. That's obviously not what is desired. So why the synthetics?

The argument has been made that synthetics are much safer. Perhaps that may prove out to be true but let's consider some other factors that may not have been taken into account regarding real dirt. The very first of these considerations should be steroids. We know that in humans and animals steroids add muscle mass and weight to those that use them. How much has this added unnatural weight contributed to injury? And - though some will continue to argue the point - steroids also enhance performance. So take those two factors together- a bigger, stronger, heavier horse that is able to outperforming the frame they were born with - and consider what we would expect to happen. Disaster. Now I may be ranting without bothering to bolster my argument with scientific numbers but it also seems to me, in human athletes anyway, that when use ends performance diminishes and injury rates again rise. I believe we will end up seeing that supposition playing out in racing as well. I think we will see a lot more horses just disappearing from the track or retiring due to less than catastrophic injuries. Hopefully the new crops, being steroid free will prove more durable. Only time will tell.

Another variable that may have added to injuries is the amount of racing days and the plenitude of options to run horses. As a horses ability wanes and they are claimed they can quickly move downward to the lower ranks of tracks and find a place where they can compete. More and more syndicates vying for horses, that usually start at the lower claiming levels, (we can't all afford The Legends Fund or the IEAH's of the world) puts more pressure on horses to run. No one wants to pay for a horse that just eats hay and burns money (except perhaps for Old Friends), so if it can't compete it is probably sold and moved on down. I can think of one horse recently that is a good example: Mike's Classic. He is a record holder at Belmont. He competed and won at the highest level and last I saw him (recently) he was running up at Finger Lakes, for $4,000, I believe! And he lost big! That's just plain wrong! He not only was a very good race horse he was a very nice, likable horse ( I had the pleasure of walking him many times). What is going to happen to him? Will they run him until he breaks down? How much do these situations add to the breakdown statistics? There are too many races and horses are over raced or race hurt. That is probably the biggest factor in injury in both humans and equines. Perhaps without the steroids they won't be able to run hurt anymore and that will help the situation.

I guess I have become a bit jaded in that I don't always believe the reasons I hear for change. I do believe in change, but I also believe there should a reason behind every decision. And that reason ought not be a supposition. I question if the synthetics are really that much safer than the dirt tracks or that dirt tracks can not be made as safe. I wonder if all considerations that led to injuries were taken into consideration. Or is the move for tracks to "go synthetic" more a fiscal/logistic decision. If it is I could accept that a lot easier as a reason for the switch. I have to wonder if the change in the drug rules, and more specifically the steroid rules, will not help to pad illusory results. I hope that the dirt tracks don't disappear. At least until there is a certainty of superiority based on substantial enough evidence not to be coincidence.

Part of my defence of the dirt is based on the horses. We have always had a great divide between U.S. horses and world horses, based on surface preference, but now with the introduction of synthetics, we are creating a divide in our own country. Just when we were finally moving towards more uniform drug laws that would promote more competition between jurisdictions we are, perhaps, creating a divide that will prove wider than the old ones. Are we creating a situation where we will have the dirt runners and the synthesizers and never the twain will meet? I think so. That is just plain bad for business; very bad for business. We have to have the best meet the best. There has always been a difference in tracks. Santa Anita ran nothing like Belmont. Nor did either run like Bay Meadows (R.I.P) or Oaklawn. The differences were enough to make the races interesting and often had an effect on the outcome of a race. But they were similar enough that a dirt horse could go, run and reasonably assume they could handle the track. Are we headed toward the day when we will never see another West Coast horse come to the Classics or to Saratoga? I know that is a little dramatic but the synthetics will definitely slow the exodus East in the spring, probably to a trickle. It was already a big issue this year. The California breeding industry is now headed in a completely different direction. Every Stallion station and breeding farm has to be reevaluating their stock. I would. Without any dirt opportunities in California the "American Breed" will be gone in the foreseeable future.

When a horse of Curlin's abilities ends up 'up the track' the difference is great enough to impact the breed. Sure, he could have had an off day. And Raven's Pass should not have been let off anywhere near $13.50-1! Curlin has been at it for two long years and perhaps the time and the miles had finally caught up with him, but I think he just got bogged down in the wax. It is his first finish out of the money in 16 attempts and he's been in against -at least in my opinion- a lot tougher fields. This is not sour grapes. I'm disappointed he lost but not angry about it. My argument is that he lost to the track not to another horse. That is not to say Raven's Pass or HenrytheNavigator may not have beaten him on the dirt. But if it was run on the dirt I don't think they would have been in the race.

I hope the industry is making the right decisions to improve the sport for the future. Unfortunately I think the future or the breed may end up running "up the track," as a result of the synthetics. I vote to keep the difference in racing.

Recent Posts

Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance

Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance RSS Feed

More Blogs