05/10/2011 8:41PM

Beneath the Surface

Email

A horse winning a major race in their first try over a different surface tends to send Americans into a tizzy. We used to be a much more adventurous bunch. Look at what we've seen:

In her first start on the dirt, after winning races like the Diana Handicap, the Flower Bowl Handicap and the Prix de l'Opera in her native France, Waya defeated champion filly Pearl Necklace in the 1979 Top Flight Handicap at Aqueduct.

In his first start on the dirt, after winning races like the Canadian International, the Coronation Cup and the Grand Prix de Paris, Exceller won the 1978 Arcadia Handicap going a mile and a quarter at Santa Anita Park, then four races later defeated Text, Vigors and J.O. Tobin in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

In his first start on the dirt, after 18 races on the grass, the French stakes winner Perrault defeated reigning Horse of the Year John Henry by a nose in the 1982 Santa Anita Handicap, although he was DQed for bearing out.

In his first start on the dirt, after six straight stakes victories in France, the 2-year-old Arazi won the 1991 Breeders' Cup Juvenile by five lengths at Churchill Downs.

In his first start on the dirt, after an international turf career that included triumphs in the Japan Cup and the Canadian International, Singspiel won the 1997 Dubai World Cup at Nad al Sheba, defeating the American stakes stars Siphon and Sandpit.

In his first start on the dirt, after winning his first five starts in Ireland, England and France, the 2-year-old Johannesburg won the 2001 Breeders' Cup Juvenile by a length and a quarter at Belmont Park.

There are more, and it works the other way as well. You just have to give it a try. Secretariat was already a Triple Crown winner when he won the Man o' War Stakes in his first try on the grass. Damascus had nailed down Horse of the Year honors by the time he showed up for the 1968 Washington, D.C. International in his first start on the grass and was beaten a nose by turf champ Fort Marcy. Dr. Fager had run 20 times, winning 14 stakes, before John Nerud put him on the grass for the first time to win the 1969 United Nations Handicap. Vanlandingham already had won the Suburban, the Stephen Foster and the Jockey Club Gold Cup when he won the 1985 Washington, D.C. International in his first start on the grass.

These are remarkable animals, champions all, and exceptions by nature to a lot of the rules that govern lesser beasts. But in this age of oppressive compartmentalization, when the slightest inclinations immediately get a race horse pigeon-holed as a sprinter, miler, synthetic, turf or dirt horse, isn't it great to be able to say...

In his first start on the dirt, after running four times on either grass or synthetics, Animal Kingdom won the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby.