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.


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Well George, I respectfully disagree with you. If the wax seemed to have favored turf horses than why did Duke of Marmalade run so poorly the way he did? He had 5 G1's to his credit although I believe his form might've tailed off, just like Curlin. And to compare competition between the two, I'd say the Duke faced far superior competition than Curlin. Remember, the Euros had less time to acclimate to the surface let alone the scorching weather conditions than what they're used to back home. I believe the horses that were improving at the right time and with the most class won the BC races on the main oval this year. And lets be fair, the other Euros entered on the main, such as the juveniles didn't run a lick on it either. Now there are some horses that just don't take to the track at all, such as all of Bruce Headley's horses and Hystericalady for a few examples. But Curlin was traveling well and was outstayed the last eighth of a mile. People argue that Tiago had beaten him for third and that it had to be the surface. Tiago ran his race and Robby A. was wrapping up on Curlin which allowed Tiago to catch him while he was in full flight for the wire for third. I believe this is the fairest racetrack out there. I mean, Casino Drive won on it, but faded to last in the Classic. I believe it was just a case of too much too soon for that horse. Not the surface.

Earlier today, John Shirreffs said that Zenyatta is a much better dirt horse than synthetic and that he kept her out in CA b/c the BC was held here! Man I hope they send her back east for some of the major dirt stakes out there to see what else is in the tank.

04 Nov 2008 5:35 PM

I think running the BC two yrs in a row in C.A. was a big mistake. I can't say Curlin would have won this race had it been on dirt. I do agree that both european invaders would most likely not run in the Classic had it been on dirt. I take nothing away from Raven's Pass win though. On the dirt Tiago was never close to Curlin. I do feel synthetic surfaces do give more of an advantage to turf horses & horses who are accustomed to running over that type of surface. I can't blame dirt horses for not wanting to ship to next years BC or other major C.A. races. You may have less C.A. horses running in triple crown races for the same reason. It will change racing. If we do away with dirt tracks we will be doing away with an American tradition (the dirt horse). Generations of horses bred to run on dirt will be lost. That would be a shame. The prolonged use of steroids in humans weakens bones, I can't see why it wouldn't have the same effect on a horse. Stallion fertility has also declined, steroids may be a factor in that as well. Bute & Lasix should also be eliminated. If a horse is in pain or bleeds it should not run. There are to many stallions out there now, with more retiring each year. A stallion that produces a high number of bleeders or unsound horses that need Bute or Lasix to race will lose favor and breeders breeding to those stallions will take alot more care on the type of mares they breed to such a stallion. To much emphasis is put on speed. Speed is cheap if you can't carry it a distance. We need to end the drug use & be more selective on the type of sires that mares are bred to. You shouldn't need a third surface to run a horse over. Horses were made to run over a natural surface, turf or dirt. If they can no longer do this, it's our fault & it needs to be corrected. Adding another surface is not helping the matter. It's like using a crutch.            

04 Nov 2008 7:39 PM

DIRT RACING AIN'T GOING NOE WHERE...we like the left coast as it is part of our nation but they jump to QUICK sometimes & this is one of them...they like to be different than the folks on the right coast sometimes & this too is one of those times...our NATIONAL TREASURE is on its way back to the top of the sports world where it rightfully belongs & DIRT goes with it...REMEMBER folks Mother Nature ALWAYS WINS!!!Long Live The Dirt & Peppers Pride!!!...GO GIRL GO...#18 ON THE DIRT!!!

05 Nov 2008 12:34 AM

Rock, while you state your points well I would still contest most of them. Casino Drive, did perform better on dirt. In his performance at Santa Anita he beat a so-so field of Allowance horses. If he is anywhere near good enough to have been in The B.C. Classic he had better beat a field like that - on any surface. And as lightly raced as he was and competing in a Classic field his result is not surprising to me.  As you said Curlin was traveling well -not that I agree with that part (he was where he wanted to be, however)- and was outstayed the last 1/8 th. I agree but isn't that the model of a turf race? As for the Euro's having less time to acclimate to the surface that may or may not be true. Many horses train on synthetics in Europe. I'm not saying that's the case for all those in the B.C., as I don't know what surfaces those particular outfits have in their yards, but it's likely that they have been on a synthetic surface before. Again I do think turf form transfers better to synthetics so even if they had no synthetic experience they were sent here because that was the feeling of the connections as well. I think there is a better explanation for Duke of Marmalade's performance and that is travel and his race in de l'Arc de Triomphe only 20 days out. That's a lot to ask any horse. The other invaders are always at a disadvantage just as are American horses that go to Dubai and Europe. Travel, acclimation to weather,bedding , routine etc. can really throw a horse off, particularly young ones. And going from cool weather to warm - or hot- is particularly difficult.  However, over all my point is that over the last quarter century the rise in the use of synthetic steroids has coincided with the impression that we are breeding an inferior quality of horse. I contend that this observational relationship is not coincidence at all. And that we are trying to fix the problem with a new surface when we really needed to address the issues of drugs  and the "boutique breeding." -Thanks for the comment.

VP. - I wasn't aware of the relationship between prolonged steroid use and weakened bones. That just solidifies my argument. Thanks for the info.

05 Nov 2008 6:21 AM
Driftin Sage

I agree with using the natural surface...dirt...but more serious...they should let the horse grow more on its own before racing them on those small leg bones which are not fully developed as they should be for the tough and stressful pounding they are taking at too early an age.  Give 'em another year and maybe there wouldn't be as many injuries.  They will be, not only stronger physically, but more mature mentally.

05 Nov 2008 9:14 AM
Driftin Sage

And on another note...the Pro-Ride attracted more trainers and horses from overseas..and..looked what happened...they came over here and almost took over... winning so many of the BC races against our good ole' American trainers and horses.  Did they really want that?  

05 Nov 2008 9:18 AM

All I have to say is, watch Real Sports with Bryant Gumble, that is currently airing on HBO.  It gives another spin, and a convincible one, on the steroids issue.  And, Curlin should be Horse of the Year.  Let Zenyatta do his race schedule that he ran, even if for just this year, or even just last year's.  I don't believe she would get a better, or even the same outcome.  But she is a beast!

05 Nov 2008 2:27 PM

Driftin Sage..

So many? I believe they won 2 on the main oval and 3 if I'm not mistaken on the Grass. The grass is a given. I think we can all agree with that. On the main oval it was in the so called "Marathon" and the Classic. As far as the Marathon goes, it was like a 500k allowance race to me. It was not a good quality american contingent in there, so I think we can all agree that if it wasn't Sixties Icon winning it, it was a toss up after that. As far as the Classic, you had to very classy Euros run 1-2, and who have been running 1-2 to each other in Europe's prestigeous races. But the point I want to make is that the reason the Euros sent a good amount of horses over this year is 1. The american turf division was weak, so it was there's for the taking. 2. The synthetic surfaces allow for very little if any "kickback" to the horses. That's the main reason the Euros don't shoot for the Classic that often when it's on the dirt. Take George Washington's race at Monmouth for example . The horse was climbing like crazy b/c so much dirt was kicked into his face. And he wasn't used to that. None of the Euros are. So by having less kickback and the horses running more into the bit, it provided for a better performance. And what happened to the other Euros that tried the Pro-Ride. Bushranger was the juvenile in Europe and he ran up the track. I agree that some horses take to it more than others. But it's just the same for every other dirt track in America. The horses from the West Coast hardly participated in any East Coast races prior to the Pro-Ride anyway. And some of the best from the West Coast have transfered that synthetic form to the dirt. Black Seventeen, Zenyatta, Colonel John, Tiago, Heatseeker, etc.. I think more people are complaining about more than ever is b/c Curlin lossed. And if it's b/c two European horses just plainly took to the Pro-Ride, you need to dig a little deeper than that. They had the class to be there, maybe even more than Curlin. They're better on grass. Curlin is better on dirt. They had a much better trip than Curlin did in the classic and Curlin got beat. On a surface that any of them had tried before....

05 Nov 2008 4:37 PM
The Colonel

Seriously, "American breed"? What other breed is there? I doubt California farms have enough money to import European or Australian horses.

You guys amaze me.

05 Nov 2008 6:29 PM

Great article! I agree completely your assessment. And I am all for safety but so far that is not proven. It appears they made the jump without all the information.  It has been shown that a dirt track can be very safe - hence NO breakdowns at Belmont or Saratoga in their last meets but 8 at Del Mar on the polytrack and 4 at Oak Tree right at the start of the meet (I never heard a total by the end though...?).

06 Nov 2008 12:04 AM

I'll answer that for you Driftin Sage from a AMERCIAN(from va. but race & spend our $$$ in Md.) OWNERS standpoint...HELL on DIRT TOO are go back across the pond!!!...LONG LIVE THE DIRT!!!

06 Nov 2008 4:16 AM
Buddy Gil

To Alex Goldikova

Asmussen has never addressed the steroid issue with Curlin. Could it be that the ProRide wasn't his primary concern at Breeder's Cup? The CA ban on steroids may have been the big issue with all of his BC horses who flopped and was reflected in his reluctance to run Curlin at all. I can't believe that none of the announcers brought that up for Curlin, yet they made a huge issue of it with Big Brown.

Don't forget that Big Brown had two big wins  (including one on grass) AFTER he was taken off of steroids. Could there be an anti-Dutrow bias at work here?

06 Nov 2008 3:05 PM
Alex JH

Buddy Gil

Curlin was taken off of steroids well before he went to Dubai and Jackson said he had instructed Steve to keep him off of them. It was a ban on steroids etc by the BC. The tide was turning anyway, KY banned, etc, etc not just CA.

BB 2 wins, BIG WINS? I think not, a turf win against inferior competition, Shakis his toughest competitor ran LAST in the BC. A manufactured race at that and the Haskell, all out to beat a NW other than.

How many races did Curlin win after HE Was off steroids. The Dubai, JCGC,

17 Nov 2008 11:33 PM

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