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Breeders' Cup ground rules
Many people considered last year's Breeders' Cup, the first run over a synthetic surface, to be one-sided. In the eight Pro-Ride races, it appeared horses with a proclivity for running on dirt didn't have much chance, whereas horses with turf reputations had an advantage.
Others wondered whether any definitive statements could be made based on eight races.
"Last year's races represent such a small statistical sample that any conclusions have to be embraced as if they're puppies," said Gary West, turf writer and handicapper for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "You know how puppies are: They could lavish you with affection or spray your chest. The sample from last year's Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita is small, but it's all we have, so we have to look at it, try to reach some conclusions, and hope we don't wind up with a stained shirt."
Vladimir Cerin, a Santa Anita-based trainer, notched his first Breeders' Cup win last year, when Albertus Maximus won the misnamed Dirt Mile. Like the winners of the seven other Breeders' Cup races over Pro-Ride, Albertus Maximus had the perfect background. Although he had never won a graded stakes, 11 of his previous 14 starts were over California's synthetic tracks, and he had a respectable race on grass. Of the eight Pro-Ride winners in the Breeders' Cup, six had prepped on synthetics, and the other two came into the race off grass preps.
"I know what last year's records show," Cerin said, "but I'm of the opinion that the best horses won regardless of what kind of surface it might have been.
"There were some horses with synthetic-track experience who ran poorly in the Breeders' Cup, but, of course, nobody talks about those."
I will. Colonel John entered the Breeders' Cup with a 4-2-1 record in seven synthetic starts, including a win in the Santa Anita Derby, but he finished sixth in the Classic. Colonel John was in contention at the eighth pole, then "steadily tired," according to the footnotes of the Classic chart.
In the Ladies Classic, no one was going to beat Zenyatta the way she ran, but Carriage Trail had entered following a creditable 2008 campaign run mostly over grass and synthetics, including a win on Polytrack in the Spinster at Keeneland. She raced evenly but settled for fourth.
Well Armed had two wins and a second in his only three route races at Santa Anita and won the Goodwood there a month before the Breeders' Cup. He beat only three horses as the favorite in the race that should have been called the Pro-Ride Mile. To be fair, Well Armed had a trip from hell most of the way.
Black Seventeen and Fabulous Strike, who had been 1-2 on dirt in the Vosburgh at Belmont a month before, finished seventh and fifth, in the Sprint. Racing only on dirt after September 2006, Fabulous Strike had been either first or second in eight of nine starts before last year's Breeders' Cup.
Of course, Curlin is arguably the poster boy for dirt-oriented horses who flopped at Santa Anita. Before the 2008 Classic, Curlin had run entirely on dirt except for a second-place grass experiment in the 2008 Man o' War at Belmont Park. After Curlin couldn't hold the lead and finished fourth at 90 cents on the dollar in the Classic, his principal owner, Jess Jackson, swore off synthetic tracks and has used Curlin's defeat at Santa Anita as an excuse for not running Rachel Alexandra in this year's Breeders' Cup.
There aren't many examples of horses who had the synthetic prerequisites and ran like camels. Despite all the ex post facto caterwauling from horseplayers, many of them either knew what was coming or adjusted quickly. Only two of the eight Pro-Ride winners were favorites, but other than Raven's Pass, who won the Classic at 13-1, and Muhannak, who won the Marathon at 12-1, the other six winners were 6-1 or less.
"[Jackson] ignores the fact that in his last two races before the Breeders' Cup, Curlin struggled to beat inferior opposition," Michael Dickinson said. "He was life and death to beat Wanderin Boy in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Past the Point in the Woodward, and those horses hadn't won a Grade 1 race between them. Curlin was almost certainly past his peak from the brilliance we had seen in the Breeders' Cup in 2007 and in the Dubai World Cup early in 2008."
Dickinson trained Da Hoss, who won the 1996 Breeders' Cup Mile and, in one of the great training feats in the history of the event, won the race two years later as a 6-year-old with only a modest prep race in between. Dickinson is an avowed supporter of synthetic tracks, especially Tapeta - Dickinson's own product that he has manufactured commercially since he left training. Golden Gate Fields, Presque Isle Downs, and Meydan in Dubai have installed Tapeta surfaces.
West disputes Dickinson's opinion of Curlin, saying Curlin looked "magnificent" in the week leading up to the Breeders' Cup.
"I think he gave the same performance in the Classic that he gave in his only turf start," West said. "But having said that, Pro-Ride played like a turf course for the Europeans, who ran 1-2 (Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator) in the Classic.
"Turf horses generally make the transition to Pro-Ride with little or no difficulty. This year's Breeders' Cup could turn into something of a turf festival."
For the first time in Breeders' Cup history, not one 2008 winner - eight races on Pro-Ride, six on turf - ran a final prep race on dirt. A few trainers purposely avoided dirt preps and opted for synthetics, whether the race was at Santa Anita, Keeneland, Del Mar, Woodbine, or even minor tracks such as Presque Isle Downs. These stratagems left only 25 horses in the 14 races with final preps on dirt. Two finished second; four each were third and fourth; the rest were fifth or worse.
By this yardstick this year, Summer Bird, Music Note, Awesome Gem, Homeboykris, and others have wasted their time by going from successful dirt preps to Santa Anita. Tim Ice, who trains Summer Bird, winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, has brought his colt to Santa Anita early with the idea of getting no fewer than three solid works into him before Classic day Nov. 7.
|Dirt Mile||Albertus Maximus||Synthetic: 3-11|
|Juvenile Fillies||Stardom Bound||Synthetic: 2-4|
|Sprint||Midnight Lute||Synthetic: 1-3|
|F&M Sprint||Ventura||Synthetic: 2-3|
|Ladies' Classic||Zenyatta||Synthetic: 7-7|
|Classic||Raven's Pass||Turf: 5-11|
The horses who won on Pro-Ride in last year's Breeders' Cup, along with their pre-Breeders' Cup records by surface.
"I think it's not going to be an issue," Ice told Daily Racing Form's David Grening after Summer Bird's latest win. "I'm going with an open mind, not thinking anything negative about the racetrack."
According to John Shirreffs, Ice is unlikely to gain insight into how Summer Bird will run, no matter how many times Summer Bird works over Pro-Ride.
"I hate synthetics," said Shirreffs, who is based at Hollywood Park, where the surface of choice is Cushion Track. "It's like running on Velcro. A horse's foot lands, and it sticks to the ground. A horse can't rotate his foot and push off. You don't know how the synthetic tracks are going to be, from day to day or track to track. They're affected by the weather. Horses can work well in the morning over the stuff, then in the afternoon they won't come close."
Shirreffs, for all his harsh criticism of synthetics, has started the unbeaten Zenyatta on dirt only once. Zenyatta is owned by Jerry and Ann Moss. Jerry Moss is a member of the same California Horse Racing Board that mandated synthetics for all major Thoroughbred tracks in California, but the day that vote was taken, in 2006, Moss was the only voting member not to support the motion. He voted "present," saying that more study should be taken before sweeping changes are made. He still holds that position and, in a recent interview with Daily Racing Form's Jay Hovdey, said synthetic tracks have separated California from the rest of the country.
Breeders' Cup bettors won't have to assess the chances of Fabulous Strike, who once again was second in the Vosburgh, because he was not pre-entered in the Sprint. Fabulous Strike's trainer, Todd Beattie, said he is convinced his horse wouldn't have run any better than he did last year, when he was beaten by six lengths in the Sprint at Santa Anita.
"All of racing is an inexact science," said Cot Campbell, president of Dogwood Stable. "But to me, unquestionably, the most inexact department involves synthetic racing surfaces and how horses will act on them. I think the trend of proven synthetic performers dominating on synthetic tracks will continue. Sadly, some horses without that established proclivity will stay home."
Craig Fravel, the executive vice president of Del Mar, didn't necessarily see it that way.
"You hear bettors complain about handicapping for synthetic tracks, but I think what we have at Santa Anita this time is a great situation for horseplayers," Fravel said. "You've got horses coming from a lot of different directions, as usual, and there will be good prices in a lot of the races because of the added element of track surfaces.
"I've never professed to be a handicapper, but going into this year, I don't think you should make too much of what happened last year," he said. "Some horses can run over dirt as well as synthetics. Zenyatta, for example. Sure, all but one of her wins are over synthetics, but she proved that she can handle dirt as well by running a big race at Oaklawn Park."
Another trainer who brought his horse to Santa Anita early was Chip Woolley, who won the Kentucky Derby with Mine That Bird. It's easy to forget that Mine That Bird, at 23-1, ran last in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile. It's just as easy to forget that Richard Mandella, a Santa Anita-based trainer, was the trainer of record for Mine That Bird on that day, before Woolley officially took over. The other trainer in Mine That Bird's life before the Breeders' Cup was Dave Cotey, who saddled him for three stakes wins over Woodbine's synthetic track after running him for a $62,500 claiming tag in his debut.
But in the Goodwood, Mine That Bird's prep for the Classic, Woolley's horse was never a factor and finished sixth. Mine That Bird missed the Travers because of throat surgery, hadn't run in 10 weeks, and was running over a shorter distance than he likes, but the most telling comment after the race came from his jockey, Calvin Borel.
"He struggled every time I thought he was about to pick it up," Borel said. "If they get him back on dirt, he will be a better horse."
In the Breeders' Cup Classic, Mine That Bird will be treated as a throwout by many horseplayers and could go off somewhere north of 15-1. But at least by running in the Goodwood, which came after a third-place finish in the West Virginia Derby, he'll go into the Classic minus the last-race-on-dirt bugaboo.
Sherwood Chillingworth, executive vice president of the Oak Tree Racing Association, has chased more than an occasional pick six in his day. Chillingworth was asked how bettors might approach this year's edition.
"I would look at last year's results as well as the way the track's been playing at this year's meet," Chillingworth said. "Finding the keys to the track is all-important. Guys that win races like our track; guys that don't, don't like it. It's that simple. But the one thing you can say about Santa Anita is that it's consistent."
Bob Ike is a professional handicapper who has been following the Southern California circuit for decades. Ike said it might be a mistake to overreact to last year's results.
"There's not enough data to know whether synthetic-track horses will have a big edge," Ike said. "Common sense says that running over synthetic by preparing over synthetic certainly doesn't hurt. And as we have seen, turf horses more readily take to these types of surfaces. Were the Europeans so tough in last year's Classic because of the surface, or were they just the best horses? My guess is that they were the best horses."
Bill Christine covered horse racing for 24 years for the Los Angeles Times and now writes for .
* Handicapping roundups from Oak Tree, Aqueduct, Churchill Dows, Keeneland, and Calder
* Jay Privman's Q&A with ESPN analyst Randy Moss
* Glenye Cain Oakford on how the stud market changes in tough times
* David Grening on trainer Cody Autrey's Aqueduct invasion
* Michael Hammersly on the value of local experience
* Plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes