03/27/2010 2:40PM

Dubai World Crapshoot


The richest horse race in history was staged in Dubai earlier today, and it was a $10 million advertisement for how synthetic surfaces can make a complete mess of so-called world-class championship racing. For all that it proved about the quality of the contestants either individually or as a group, the results of the Dubai World Cup might as well have been drawn out of a hat.


The winner, front-running Gloria de Campeao, is an admirably durable Brazilian 7-year-old who was beaten 16 1/2 lengths by Curlin in the 2008 World Cup and 14 lengths by Well Armed in the race last year. Those two editions, like the 12 before them, were run on dirt but this year's version at the new Meydan Racecourse was run on Tapeta, a synthetic surface which until this year had never been used for anything more prestigious than a Grade III race at Golden Gate Fields. 

The runner-up, Lizard's Desire, came into the $10 million race with a field-low bankroll of $207,442, having finished 10th and 11th in his two prior starts in Group 1 company in his native South Africa. Allybar, who was third, was 0 for 6 in graded or group races of any kind. America's supposed synthetic specialists -- BC Classic runner-up Gio Ponti (who finished 4th), Goodwood winner Gitano Hernando and Pacific Classic winner Richard's Kid -- had no impact on the finish.

Tapeta may well be a lovely training surface, and it has gotten high marks among synthetic tracks, but no one can really explain why anyone needs a third type of horse racing to go along with the dirt and turf racing that has defined the sport and its great horses for centuries. The Maktoums' decision to replace dirt with Tapeta at their gaudy new racing palace was a premature guess that these new surfaces might somehow magically combine dirt and turf racing into one globally-accepted footing. That hasn't happened and isn't going to anytime soon, or probably ever. 

Instead, it remains entirely unclear what this World Cup proved other than Bob Baffert's adage that synthetic tracks make good horses look ordinary and ordinary horses look good. (And put down your torches -- this has nothing to with Zenyatta, a transcendently great horse who handles everything and is probably as good or better on dirt than on synthetics.) Sure, plenty of major dirt races end with befuddling finishes (cf. Kentucky Derby, 2005 and 2009) and there were even bigger upsets on grass today than on Tapeta. But in the past, the World Cup was a true showcase for champions, such as Cigar, Silver Charm, Dubai Milennium, Invasor and Curlin. Now? Step right up and spin the wheel.