I’m not sure what it would have taken over this past weekend to change my opinion of this year’s Breeders’ Cup, not sure what would have made me think that having all of the distaff races on Friday was a good idea, not sure what would have made me support the decision to hold these year-end races on a synthetic track.
Whatever it might have been, it didn’t happen.
I found both days unsatisfying; while appreciating the efforts and successes of the horses who competed, I did feel as though I were watching something inauthentic, something manufactured—much like the surface on which the non-turf races were run.
I’ve never been a supporter of synthetic surfaces, mostly because the reasons for which they were purportedly invented and marketed have proven largely false: there is little evidence at this point that they have a significant effect in reducing injuries; many researchers agree that track surface plays only one role in reducing breakdowns; and it seems clear that if the money and time put into developing synthetics were put into developing and maintaining dirt tracks, fatal breakdowns on dirt could be reduced.
I have no problem with synthetics from a handicapping standpoint, and the financial benefits of the reduction in training time and fewer scratches when races are rained off the turf are undeniable.
So after this year’s Breeders’ Cup, we are left with the question: where do synthetic surfaces fit in the United States racing picture?
I’m with those who don’t think that championships should be won or lost on any surfaces over which horses seldom race, but that is a flaw of the Breeders’ Cup and the Eclipse awards more than it is a flaw in the design of race courses.
One popular, world-wide sport has set a precedent for its athletes competing on a variety of surfaces over the course of a year: tennis. Each of its four major championships is contested over a different surface, which can be inexactly compared to racing surfaces: The Australian Open is played on Plexicushion, after decades of Rebound Ace (one type of synthetic); the French Open is played on clay (dirt); Wimbledon is played on grass (turf); the U.S. Open is played on DecoTurf (another type of synthetic).
In addition to these majors, smaller tournaments are contested on these surfaces, as players prep for the Grand Slam events; each level of competition has a place in the overall structure of events, and players are awarded points for competing in tournaments, earning more points for each round they win, with majors and Masters Series events carrying more points than smaller tournaments.
Few tennis players are equally adept on all four surfaces; Pete Sampras couldn’t and Roger Federer can’t crack the clay, Gustavo Kuerten couldn’t win on anything else except the red stuff, and Rafael Nadal hasn’t figured out to win the big one on the U.S. Open surface. In tennis, though, players can finish the year #1 in the rankings based on their performances on a variety of surfaces through the year; no one tournament, no one surface determines their success.
The parallels with racing offer intriguing possibilities; while I have been an interested if ambivalent supporter of standings—I think they have potential and would benefit from further examination and development—if synthetic surfaces are indeed going to play a major role in racing in this country, then something’s got to change, because it is simply not sporting to ask horses to run for year-end honors over a surface with which they have little familiarity.
One could argue that the European horses did it rather successfully yesterday, but the similarities between turf and synthetics are well-documented and are in fact one of their selling points: turf horses generally take well to synthetics, so they scratch less often when races are moved off the grass. Whatever we’ve learned about synthetics, this seems to be received opinion at this point.
Looking forward, I would suggest that the Breeders’ Cup races carry with them no more significance than any other races contested during the year; winning the Classic is equal to winning the Derby or the Travers or any other Grade I race, and winning the Dirt Mile carries no greater significance than winning any other ungraded dirt race. This way, a horse’s performance on one particular day—whether it’s over an unfamiliar surface at Santa Anita or a boggy turf at Monmouth—is less consequential than their aggregate performance over the course of a year. And taking a pass on the Breeders’ Cup because it’s not on a horse’s preferred surface would not be reason to dismiss him or her as a candidate for year-end honors, just as passing on the Met Mile or the Alabama would not eliminate a horse from consideration.
We seldom seek skill on multiple surfaces as a criterion for greatness in U.S. racing; we might have at one point, but now, success on one surface suffices for a horse to be considered year-end champion.
Like Valerie at Foolish Pleasure, who asks questions about the future of dirt racing in this country, I am uneasy at what implications might be drawn from the results of last weekend’s racing. It surprises me that European trainers are so eager to laud the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita as a way of “leveling the playing field.” The advantage may simply have tipped in a different direction, and racing—especially the Breeders’ Cup and the Eclipse awards—has a responsibility to respond by addressing the idea that a horse’s performance in a championship race should depend on his talent, not the surface on which the Breeders’ Cup has chosen to run.