11/10/2010 9:10PM

A Fair and Balanced Cup


Horses who made their final preps on dirt and synthetic surfaces fared equally well in the eight main-track Breeders' Cup races this year, as opposed to the 0-for-43 collar that dirt horses took in the 2008 and 2009 editions over Pro-Ride at Santa Anita.

The chart below shows where each Cup starter made his final start before the Cup this year and last. Runners coming off dirt and synthetic races showed almost identical winning and in-the-money percentages in 2010, after a 2009 edition where dirt runners floundered badly:

These results confirm what many handicappers and horsemen intuitively feel and have learned repeatedly in the last five years: It's much easier for horses to transfer their form from synthetic to dirt surfaces than the other way around, much in the same way that grass races are frequently good preps for dirt races while a dirt race never seems to set up a grass horse for a peak performance on turf.

Especially with Santa Anita returning to dirt racing, Hollywood Park likely to close in the next few years, and no other American track even contemplating the installation of a synthetic surface, it appears that the main-track Breeders' Cup races will continue to be run on dirt for the foreseeable future.  The results above suggest that is the fairest way to proceed.


--Update 11/11: Speaking of the return to dirt racing at Santa Anita, here is the text of a California Horse Racing Board press release about the work being done in anticipation of the Dec. 26th opening:

The Board waived the CHRB requirement for a synthetic surface at Santa Anita Park and authorized the installation of an all-natural main track composed of clay and various types of sand. This action followed weeks of discussions and meetings between CHRB Executive Director Kirk Breed and representatives of Santa Anita, the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC), and California Thoroughbred Trainers (CTT) to make certain the design and materials used in the new track were to everyone’s satisfaction and would provide a safe racing surface.

After Santa Anita President George Haines and Scott Daruty, representing Santa Anita’s parent company MI Developments, provided an overview of the project, Chairman Brackpool stated, “I have been following this almost on a daily basis as our staff has been working with you. There has been an extraordinary amount of detail. We have stressed a cooperative process, trying to get buy-ins from all concerned. I have letters from John Sadler representing the CTT and Bob Baffert representing the TOC indicating their support for this waiver and these plans. The emphasis all along has been safety, safety, safety.” These thoughts were echoed by CTT Executive Director Alan Balch, who said in all of his 40 years in the horse racing industry “I have never seen this degree of collaboration on a racing surface.” They all thanked the Santa Anita/MID project team and MID Chairman Frank Stronach for their cooperation and the openness of the process.

Haines said the demolition of the previous synthetic track had been completed over the last few weeks and, pending Board approval of the waiver, 50 trucks were standing by to begin bringing in decomposed granite for the new base. He said this “rock dust” would be “extremely compacted to form a concrete-like base,” installed to exact specifications for hardness, grade, and consistency using lasers, transponders, and GPS technology. After the base is set, they will bring in thousands of tons of clay, silt, and sands, mixed to specifications for the new surface. He said installation should be completed by December 6, giving horses nearly three weeks to train on the new surface before the December 26 start of the winter meet.

Daruty said maintenance of the new track would obviously be a top priority for management and they were spending nearly $1 million on new equipment, including a “precision, laser-guided grader to maintain the precise grade of the track.”

Pointing to this new equipment and the fact they had not gone with the least-expensive surface, he said “money did not enter into our considerations. The point was not to save money but to try to come up with a safe racetrack that could be used for a long, long time.”

Commissioner Derek suggested that because this will be a brand new racing surface and the first natural racing surface that many horses based in Southern California have ever been exposed to, it would be prudent for Santa Anita to hire an extra veterinarian to help conduct thorough pre-race examinations of all horses entered to run. Haines quickly agreed to the suggestion. The Board then voted on the waiver request and unanimously approved it (6-0).