08/24/2006 11:00PM

Brave new world underfoot

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Like it or not, and sooner than you might have thought, American racing is about to undergo a fundamental revolution with the advent of synthetic racing surfaces.

Polytrack thus far has been used for racing in this country only at Turfway Park, where a significant reduction in breakdowns, cancellations, and sloppy tracks has prompted a hasty embrace of the new surfaces. Woodbine is abandoning dirt for rubber and wax, and will be followed by Keeneland in October, Hollywood Park in November, and Del Mar and Santa Anita next year. The implications of these changes will reach to the highest levels of the sport, and right away:

* Horses running in this year's Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs Nov. 5 who prep at Keeneland in October will be switching from Polytrack in their final preps back to dirt for the main event at Churchill. Races such as the Breeders' Futurity, Alcibiades, and Spinster, prime feeders for Cup races, will all be run on Polytrack this year.

* It's possible that this year's 2-year-old championship could be decided on a synthetic surface if the Hollywood Futurity is needed to settle the title, as it was two years ago when Declan's Moon, Afleet Alex, Wilko, and Proud Accolade squared off for the Eclipse Award.

* Next spring, horses who take the Kentucky route to the Kentucky Derby, not only in the Lane's End at Turfway and but also now in the Blue Grass at Keeneland, will be going Poly-to-dirt on Derby Day. In 2008, under current plans, the Santa Anita Derby and the rest of the California winter Derby preps will also be run on synthetic surfaces.

* Finally, what happens in a couple of years when geographical fairness and politics dictate that it's time to run another Breeders' Cup in California? Is the sport ready to have most of its championships decided by a day of synthetic-track racing?

The entire debate begins and ends with the safety issue. If synthetic racing surfaces truly will save horses' lives and extend their careers, horsemen and handicappers may grumble about the new world order but will eventually get used to it and know that it was the right thing to do. The reason that the idea has not been universally embraced is that many racetrackers are unconvinced of those benefits on the basis of a limited sample at Turfway Park.

Injuries were down and business was up in large part because of fewer dangerously sloppy or frozen tracks with small fields. But does that necessarily mean that racing in Southern California, where inclement weather is rarely an issue, will become safer and more popular as well? There is a school of thought that synthetic surfaces might more judiciously have been phased in and studied where they were needed most, at winter tracks in northern climes, rather than being hastily mandated for all California tracks by the end of 2007.

There also would have been benefits to waiting for an industry-wide consensus on the issue. Tracks such as Belmont Park, Churchill Downs and Gulfstream are unlikely to adopt synthetic surfaces for years, if ever, meaning there will be an ongoing issue of horses switching from one surface to another on a regular basis within regional circuits and on a national stage for the sport's most important events.

Some Californians, for example, are afraid there will be an exodus of top stakes horses, particularly among the Derby-bound 3-year-olds whose trainers won't really know where they are with their horses by prepping them on synthetic surfaces. There has yet to be even a hint that Churchill, Pimlico, or Belmont is considering changing the arguably hallowed ground on which the Triple Crown races are run.

* One tantalizing tidbit to emerge from the Jockey Club Round Table was the announcement that the New York Racing Association's bid for a renewal of its franchise will include a plan to convert two of its surfaces to synthetic footing. Officials say they are prevented from disclosing bid details, but the two surfaces widely believed to be candidates for such change are not the racing surfaces at Belmont or Saratoga but the training track at Belmont and either the main or inner track at Aqueduct.

This seems like a sensible way to proceed. Trainers at Belmont could use either the main dirt track or synthetic training track as they please while learning more about it. Winter racing at Aqueduct might become a lot more interesting - one-turn miles in February! - if a winterproof synthetic main track offered a wider variety of race configurations. Conversely, replacing the existing inner track with a synthetic one would be a modest and controlled experiment.

The rush for change in California may well look commendable in hindsight if the synthetic surfaces turn out to be the godsends their proponents claim and there are no unforeseen drawbacks. In the meantime, ready or not, racing is about to change, starting with the very ground beneath its feet.