11/10/2006 1:00AM

Cup accelerates surface discussions


WASHINGTON – Invasor clinched the horse of the year title by upsetting Bernardini, and the 2-year-old Street Sense stamped himself as a star of the future with a 10-length runaway at Churchill Downs. But it is possible that neither of these performances will be remembered as the defining event of the Breeders' Cup World Championships. Saturday's races may have accelerated the adoption of synthetic surfaces at American tracks.

The 23rd Breeders' Cup was being contested at what the Daily Racing Form described as a moment of "seismic change" in the industry. Keeneland had just completed its first race meeting contested over Polytrack, and its officials hailed the safety of the material in comparison with dirt. Hollywood Park, with its new Cushion Track, had just begun California's conversion to synthetic surfaces. The industry seemed likely to be divided on the issue because many major players, including Churchill Downs, have shown no inclination to abandon traditional dirt surfaces.

The debate will be sharpened after the Breeders' Cup produced a terrible outcome, summed up by the Sunday-morning headline in the New York Times: "Death Overshadows Upset." Pine Island, the highly regarded 3-year-old filly, broke down during the running of the Distaff and was euthanized. In the same race, the favorite Fleet Indian also broke down, although she was expected to survive. These mishaps came at the end of a season in which Barbaro's career-ending injury in the Preakness was the sport's No. 1 story and Thoroughbred safety became the sport's No. 1 issue.

There is no proof that racing surfaces - at Churchill Downs or anywhere else - are principally responsible for breakdowns. And there still isn't conclusive evidence that synethetic surfaces are safer than dirt. But most people in racing already accept those premises, and Saturday's accidents are sure to intensify the calls for change in racing surfaces. The Phipps family, which owned Pine Island, is one of the most influential in the sport, and if Jockey Club chairman Dinny Phipps gets aboard the synthetic-track bandwagon, the momentum for change will surely gather more speed. While it is debatable whether the Churchill track had anything to do with the injuries to Pine Island and Fleet Indian, there is little question that the racing surface played an important role in the outcome of Saturday's races. Usually Churchill gives every horse, regardless of running style or position on the track, an honest chance to win. Track biases never affect the Kentucky Derby.

On the day of the Breeders' Cup, however, the inside part of the track was clearly an advantage; four of the five championship races run on the dirt were won by the horse breaking from the No. 1 post position. Dreaming of Anna led all the way to win the Juvenile Fillies as Octave followed her along the rail to finish second. Street Sense hugged the rail as he rallied to upset the Juvenile, paying $32.40. Round Pound, a 14-1 shot, stayed near the rail and won the Distaff, paying $29.80. The Sprint produced a $965.80 exacta that could only be explained by its winning post position numbers: 1 and 2.

Horses who tried to rally in the middle of the track seemed to lose their momentum and were outkicked by horses nearer the rail. Invasor was the only one able to win with an outside rally, but even he had managed to stay near the inside until he turned into the stretch. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin rightly hailed the effort by jockey Fernando Jara: "It was an exceptional ride from the 11 post. To get over and be in the two-path round the first turn was unbelievable."

The rail-favoring bias made it difficult to assess the performances of many horses in the Breeders Cup, especially in the Juvenile. Street Sense won by the biggest margin, and earned the biggest Beyer Speed Figure, 108, in the history of this event. He immediately became the favorite for the 2007 Kentucky Derby. But how much was he aided by racing on the rail? How much was runner-up Circular Quay hindered by trying to make his strong, wide rally from last place? Street Sense may be something special, but he will have to run another impressive race to make handicappers believe that his Juvenile performance was completely legitimate.

The Classic produced the confrontation everyone wanted to see, Invasor vs. Bernardini, but it was simultaneously exciting and disappointing. Bernardini had been highly acclaimed as he won six straight races this season, dominating weak fields; none of his rivals had the talent to give him a meaningful test. Now Bernardini had his one chance before his retirement to prove himself a truly great racehorse. He had no excuses. Invasor was racing wide in the stretch, and his winning speed figure (116) was no better than average for the Classic. But Bernardini couldn't deliver a heroic performance on a day when the sport needed one.

(c) The Washington Post