11/04/2010 2:34PM

Churchill Turf: Hard, Firm or Soft?

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The growing concern over Workforce's participation in the Breeders' Cup Classic has unearthed a problem concerning the proper identification of turf course conditions in America.
Workforce's team is saying that the ground at Churchill Downs is too firm, by which you might read that they think it is hard. They do not want to risk their highly prized Epsom Derby-Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner on ground that might not only be unsuitable for hin, but might pose a risk of injury.
Europeans are sensitive about things like the state of the ground. Virtually all of their best races and most of their middle range races are run on turf, and they have made a science out of determining what the ground is really like. In Britain they start with hard, then go firm, good to firm, good, good to soft, soft, heavy. In Ireland they go hard, firm, good to firm, good, good to yielding, yielding, yielding to soft, soft, heavy. In France it is hard, firm (two conditions rarely seen there), good to firm, good, good to soft, soft, very soft, holding, heavy and very heavy.
In England in recent years they have even begun breaking down course conditions further. Conditions like good, good to soft in places, meaning that the track is generally good but good to soft in low-lying areas (remember that many racecourses in Europe are hilly or undulating) are now seen, as are conditions like good to firm, good in the straight, or stretch.
By contrast in America, we have just hard, firm, good, yielding and soft. Hard is practically never seen, even though it is quite obvious that many American turf courses are exactly that during the summer and early autumn. Phil Johnson once described the turf course at Belmont Park in June and July as "a dirt course painted green."
American track superintendents sometimes lose their bearings whenever there is a reasonable amount of rain. What passes for good in England is frequently called soft in America. What should be soft in America is sometimes termed yielding. A former track superintendent at Belmont Park (his name will go unmentioned) once boasted that "my turf course is never yielding," as if he could withstand the effects of rainfall.
Of course in Europe, where they have considerably more rain than we have in America, they have to be careful of the state of the ground, just as we are concerning conditions on dirt tracks. We could learn a few things about rating turf courses from Europe, just as the rest of the world could learn better form us about how to label dirt tracks.
One of the things Michael Stoute and Juddmonte's racing manager Teddy Grimthorpe are concerned about at Churchill is the lack of watering. In Europe, there is a tendency to water in dry weather in an effort to achieve good ground. And it is called "good" ground for a reason. That is because good is the best sort of ground for all concerned, not too firm for soft ground lovers, and not too soft for firm ground lovers, and perfect for good ground lovers.
Workforce would probably prefer good or good to firm ground. The concerns voiced by Stoute and Grimthorpe are meant to encourage more watering for the favorite. This is a routine tactic in Europe, but their pleas appear to be falling on deaf ears in Louisville. Churchill is watering ten minutes daily, but that will not be enough to change the going as long as the rain stays away.
Interestingly enough, a pair of American riders- Rafael Bejarano and Tony Farina- told the Racing Post on Wednesday that the turf course at Churchill was soft. Michael Stoute might have had a good laugh at their estimation, but it is all down to what one is used to. In England, where they are used to good ground, anything firmer than that appears to be hard. In America, where we are used to firm to hard ground, anything even a bit softer than that appears to be soft.

The Breeders' Cup Classic is supposed to be America's season ending championship event, the race that sums things up after a long year of racing around the country. At 1 1/4 miles it does provide a classic test, yet almost all of the 12 horses in this year's renewal are suspect over the distance on dirt.
The combined record of the 12 going exactly 10 furlongs on dirt is 1-for-14.Haynesfield's Jockey Club Gold Cup score is the exception. Zenyatta won her lone try at the distance on Pro-Ride in last year's Classic. Lookin at Lucky won the Preakness going 1 3/16 miles. Pady O'Prado won the Virginia Derby and the Secretariat Stakes at the distance on turf.
So this Classic will be uncharted territory for almost everyone involved. I am beginning to believe that we could have an upset of Arcangues-like proportions in the Classic. The dark horses in the race- First Dude and Fly Down- as well as the outsiders- Musket Man and Etched- don't rate very far behind the favorites. Even if a longshot fails to win, we could have a boxcar triple. Pick 6 players would be wise to use more than two or three horses in the Classic.

Godolphin has eight runners in the Cup running for three different trainers...four if you count Rick Mettee. Saeed bin Suroor is Godolphin's nominal conditioner in New York, but Mettee is the hands-on man there. Suroor and Mahmood Al Zarooni have been hot as pistols in Europe during the last eight weeks, during which time Godolphin has won four Group 1's, three Group 2's, two Group 3's and 13 listed races. Two of those group scores, however, belong to Godolphin's man in France, Andre Fabre. Still, Godolphin is one of the hottest stables in the Cup, so it would be unwise not to work them into your calculations.
Godolphin's Hibaayeb is the forgotten horse in the Filly & Mare Turf. Sent to Hollywod, she won the Yellow Ribbon on firm ground and was penciled in for the Hollywood Turf Classic where she would be assured of the same firm ground she requires. She was pre-entered for the Filly & Mare Turf in the hope of firm ground. She has got it and will make use of it, although I don't think she is in quite the same league as Midday, Red Desire or Plumania.
Delegator in the Mile is perhaps the one Godolphin horse you can throw out. Sara Louise makes a warm dark horse in the Filly & Mare Sprint, while both Gayego and Vineyard Haven will be competitive in the Dirt Mile. Even Etched, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, in the Classic is in with a chance in a race that is much more wide open than many people think.

Freddie Head brings Goldikova to the Mile on something of a hot streak, as if Goldikova needed her stablemates to be firing on all cylinders in order for her to run well. Last Sunday at Saint-Cloud, Head won the one-mile, Group 3 Prix Perth with Rajsaman, who was making his first start for his new trainer. Head then saddled Salto to finish second to Roderic O'Connor in the one-mile, Group 1 Criterium International.
 

Qev More than 1 year ago
Okay Alan, we've got the guys who actually ride the horses (including one Frenchman) saying the course is fine--"soft", even--,and the guys who watch from the stands, doing all of the complaining. What gives? (pun intended) Additionally, how is it that Grimthorpe can be so fearful of running Workforce over this "unsafe" course, yet, eager to run Midday? Isn't a course that's unsafe for one horse just as unsafe for another? Unless, the concern isn't Workforce's 'safety' at all, but, rather his Performance. Lastly, the work you do in regards to shedding light upon and bringing understanding of foreign form to us provincial 'Yanks' is indispensable, please keep it up. Hopefully there will be more foreign participation when the Breeders' Cup--finally--returns to New York. Thanks. (It isn't all about safety, it's about the kind of ground a horse likes, and Midday, like, Goldikova, likes it firm.) AS
JCRobinson More than 1 year ago
I have read several articles on this topic. While I have not heard, it is common in drought conditions such as Kentucky is experiencing to restrict water usage. Maybe there are exceptions in such circumstances, but has not this possibility occurred to people? In this day and age where environmental impact is front page news, shouldn't Churchill Downs be given a nod for not overusing what is clearly a precious resource in Kentucky right now? PS- if memory serves, in the last BC at Churchill (or maybe the one before) wasn't a European horse lost on SOFT ground in the Mile- Landseer, I think? (and yes I have not forgotten Pine Island or Fleet Indian, for those who want to harp on "dangerous dirt")
yuwipi More than 1 year ago
If there is any real concern for the horse's welfare I hope they err on the side of caution and pull him. Love to see him run, but we don't need any Sunday morning headlines trumpeting an injury of that sort. Still think he was fortunate to get through in the Arc. The whole turf course business is something I think the Breeders Cup really needs to look at if they could take some time off from their internecine squabbling. The sad fact of the matter is that most North American turf courses are sadly lacking by international standards. There are obvious exceptions but as long as BC are committed to one site they are unable to take advantage of them. Love the PG Johnson line by the way, those were the days. Although I like Quality Road in the Classic I do share your opinion on the rest of the field. I really can't wait for the race and hope it lives up to it's potential whether I'm with the winner or not. Many thanks for the web information from a previous blog. Loved the Japanese racing site. Never know they only ran two days a week, must have missed that in your book. I do think the blue boys might race with some success this weekend. (The Japan Racing Asociation (JRA) , the major body in Japan, does race only on Saturdays and Sundays, but the National Association of Racing (NAR), the lesser body that runs exclusively on dirt at different tracks with a completely different set of trainers and jockeys, races Monday through Friday at three to five tracks per day. Red Desire comes form the JRA, Espoir City comes from the NAR, but he has run in some of the best JRA dirt races.) AS
Chicago Guy More than 1 year ago
Alan; I have to wonder why both Workforce and Midday's people are questioning the turf condition. Don't they have access to weather.com? It was crystal clear 2 weeks ago that rain was not likely in Louisville. No one else is ripping the course. Could it be they want a built in excuse? (No, they just want Churchill to put more water down on the turf course.) AS