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Here's to You, Mr. Jackson
He said it like it was a dirty word. Plastic. That is how Jess Jackson described the material covering Santa Anita's main track. Plastic. Not synthetic. Not engineered. Not all-weather. And certainly not by its product name, which is Pro-Ride.
He called it plastic, as if he'd just sipped a sour wine, and let it hang that way, rich with the negative connotations that have clung to the word since the 1960s. Plastic is phony. Plastic is cheesy. Plastic represents all that Mother Nature is not.
Plastic is what he called the racetrack over which the Breeders' Cup will be contested later this year. And plastic is something that his newly purchased superstar filly Rachel Alexandra will never, ever set foot upon as long as Jackson controls her destiny. Our loss, I guess.
Plastic used to be cool, a long time ago. Plastic gave us Disneyland, LPs, implants, rollerblades and the modern poker chip. Then plastic six-pack rings began choking fish and waterfowl to death and washing ashore by the long ton, while landfills full of plastic started growing to the size of small cities.
There is no truth to the tale, although Jess Jackson might say it's so, that the people who decided to go with synthetic surfaces in California were deeply influenced by the most famous one-word line of dialogue in movie history. The movie was "The Graduate," released in 1967. Watch and listen:
To be fair, Jackson is on the right track, plastically speaking. The Pro-Ride surface is comprised of about 87% sand, coated in a polymer compound. Plastic, in all its many forms, is based on polymer technology. Polymer plastic, in fact, is defined as, "The product of a high polymer with or without additives, such as plasticizers, autooxidants, colorants, or fillers; can be sprayed, shaped, molded, extruded, cast or foamed, depending on whether it is thermoplastic or thermosetting." No, it does not sound like something suited to Man o' War.
Here's the problem, though. Jess Jackson has decided to blame not running Rachel Alexandra in a Breeders' Cup race on a racetrack he thinks she can't handle. This is called getting out in front of the issue, as opposed to blaming the track after the fact for Curlin's loss last October in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita. On plastic. Jackson owns Curlin, too.
If he does not want to run in the Breeders' Cup for whatever reason, that's fine. It costs a lot, and the competition is steep. If he feels Rachel Alexandra is not versatile enough to handle a particular type of ground, that's nothing to be ashamed of. Round Table could not deal with soft turf. Kelso was a flop in California. For all she has accomplished, Rachel Alexandra needs to do nothing more to assure her place in racing history.
But Jackson goes too far. By implication, and repetition, he is calling everyone else a sap who would tolerate running their "dirt" horses on anything but an old-fashioned dirt track. For this I have just one word: Monmouth Park.
Okay, two. But here's my rule--any owner who allowed their horse to compete on the main track at Monmouth Park in the 2007 Breeders' Cup forfeited their right once and forever to criticize the conditions of any racing surface anywhere. Not even Curlin loved that treacherous mess. He just survived it faster than any other horse that day.
Both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta have challenges ahead before the Breeders' Cup comes into view, beginning Saturday afternoon at Belmont Park and Hollywood Park. In terms of karma, about the worst thing a fellow can do in horse racing is talk about tomorrow when there is work to be done today. Still, Mr. Jackson makes a fine bottle of wine, which is where I'm going right now as Friday afternoon fades. There's a nice chardonnay in the fridge, rightly priced for a racing writer, and...what's this?
The cork...is made...of plastic.
I propose that the comment writers in the Rachel/Zenyatta matchup( which probably won't happen) write a short synopsis as to how a race between them with the least three other horses in the race would play out. Of course they should be limited to a maximum of 300 words or less. I am an avid Zenyatta fan, but think she can only beat Rachel 1 out of 100 times and that only because of a rider miscalculation. She is a great closer(and great champion) but I don't think she could close into Rachel's torrid and consistent fractions. So let's hear what you have to say.
I don't believe Curlin lost the BC Classic last year because it was on synthetic. How does Jess Jackson know Rachel Alexandra won't run well on synthetic? Personally I am tired of reading about these owners and trainers complain about synthetic surfaces. Bob Baffert blamed Indian Blessing's loss on the synthetic surface,not on the fact that just maybe the trip to and from and the race at Dubai took its toll on her. I have read articles where several trainers say the synthetics are kinder to the horse. Our main concern should be the welfare of the horses.The bettors complaining the most about synthetic tracks causing them to lose have only found yet another weak excuse for their lack of handicapping skills. There is a vast difference between these gamblers who bet every race and the serious handicapper who spends hours analyzing the form. George Washington should never have been racing on dirt let alone the slop. Another situation where the welfare of the horse was ignored.
Lazy Bettors??? Trainers and bettors who argue against synthetic because it changes the game, may be simply unwilling to do their homework and are opposed to anything that smacks of change in tradition. My better-half (by far) was able to consistently pick winning tickets at the SA BC last fall. For tops she had the pick three for the last three races. Won a single exacta box, and picked the Classic in order of finish. She does not do wheels, or multiple fancy bets. She did not have Curlin to win the Classic and picked Minute Lute to repeat as a single. Some people just don't want to change the way they have always done things. It is not impossible or even all that difficult to handicap synthetic. Most dirt horses run fine on synthetic, as do most turf horses. Turf and dirt crossover is more rare. There is no secret to handicapping synthetic: Pick the best race horse(s)!
FYI: Mr. Jackson has purchased multiple stakes-winning broodmares for million dollar plus prices whose only wins were on synthetic. Did he do that so he could breed dirt-only runners? There is no doubt that Assmussen has a bias against synthetic (and turf) which probably has more to do with JJ's stance. It also endears him to speed trainers, a few owners, and some members of the betting public who are not particularly concerned about the well being of the horse.
Wonder if any of you have ever even met or done business with Jess Jackson? Artificial surfaces were not developed to make him or trainers "happy". It was created to provide a consistent and safer racing surface for THE HORSES! If Rachel is the super horse (and I think she is), she can win on it. The Europeans clobbered the U.S. horses at the last BC on Pro-Ride and most had never seen it or dirt. Although there have been problems in development and installation, statistics would support the safety aspect of synthetic. Dirt is less consistent, more effected by weather conditions, and varies greatly from track to track. Running on dirt at Calder is not the same as running on dirt at Lone Star, or even Gulfstream. I would run a horse on synthetic ANYTIME, but only or dirt and/or turf when conditions are favorable. George Washington looked terrible in the paddock and never should have been raced. My wife even commented before the race that he should be scratched. In my opinion his condition had more to do with his demise than the track, which was dirt. He was put down almost directly in front of our seats at the finish line. For those who think that synthetic somehow diminishes racing: at the last SA BC track records were broken on the Pro-Ride surface! Not one single horse was injured in two days of some of the best racing I have ever witnessed.
Any surface in which a horse such as Dominican is a superstar is just bogus. On the other hand...maybe if the didn't run the Breeder's Cup back at Santa Anita Mr. Jackson wouldn't object. Arlington comes to mind. Synthetic yet not in California. Oh and Mr. Hovdey? Maybe you should buy better wine.
First off, J. Jackson had to retire Curlin for stud and was out of the limelight. The only way back in (at that level) is with a "Rachel." That deal reeks of ego, plain and simple. Second, Rachel has both Poly and dirt experience; as does the Big Z. Thirdly, while I would wish that we could return to the past of just dirt and turf, we can't and they won't let us. On that topic, I have been forced to learn "Poly" handicapping because I am out West. Given the proper amount of time and study, I have crushed Santa Anita (and I'm by no means near the best, but I read my books by Crist). During the week of Breeder's Cup, I hit the Place Pick All 3 days in a row (with multiple winners), but I studied and it took a lot of time where I ignored the East coast. So, it can be done. Fourth, someone on here said "it's just like a trainer that doesn't want to run his turf horse on the dirt" and that's correct and that should make all of this stuff a "non-issue" for everyone.
Dear Jay, I believe most of the comments, and your article, spend time on the artificial track issue. I believe there is a greater question related to Mr. Jackson's comment that he will do what is best for the horse. OR IS IT BEST FOR HIM? I assume Mr Jackson has great wealth and yet he is afraid to race the horse against Zenyatta on this surface; not from fear of injury, but from fear of losing. That is an economic decision to keep the value of the broodmare as high as possible, or perhaps, a legacy for Mr Jackson so he can keep his horse undefeated. This is not a sportsmen's decision. If he believes there is a great risk of injury to her, he should say so. I don't think the owners of Zenyatta are racing on artificial surface to risk injury to their animal. Mr Jackson should do what is right, and help the sport he loves, which is in dire need of publicity such as a race at the Breeders Cup between these two magnificent animals.
The plastic races are by far the least bettable, least entertaining of the three surfaces. I think Mr. Hovdey (who took some cheap shots at Jackson and his super filly in this column) needs to take off his West Coast blinkers and realize that the short-sighted, knee-jerk decision to mandate plastic tracks has marginalized the West Coast racing product. The West Coast loves to whine about East Coast bias, but now all your horses can be labeled "plastic" horses if they don't ship and win on dirt. But here's some good news, these plastic tracks are ill suited to the climate and traffic levels of SoCal racing. Hollywood is already a hybrid track because the synthetic materials are breaking down so quickly and they keep having to remix the surface. So whether by choice or natural degradation, I can't see these tracks lasting more than five years. Whichever California track rips their's out first will get my betting dollars again.
Jay, I am with the nay sayers here. Plastic tracks are to be avoided by top trainers who say to themselves 'what's the point' of racing on them. Even Beyer has already adjusted his number sets for the 'unhandicapable' surface. And I tend to think that perhaps this will happen again and again until measurement on the plastic erodes. As a handicapper I don't like plastic as part of the mix.