04/08/2010 11:00PM

Favoring dirt leaves U.S. on outside


NEW YORK - All of the noise created in the last two years by dirt traditionalists and synthetic radicals concerning safety has tended to drown out a larger and equally important trend: Racing and breeding in America continues on a path toward isolationism even in this age of globalism.

Discounting Argentina, the United States is the only major racing nation in the world that still runs a majority of stakes races on dirt, even as we take the schizoid route in running at least 100 graded races per year on synthetic surfaces. While most of the fuss over the two types of tracks centers on safety and arcane matters of handicapping, the switch to synthetics at eight of North America's more important racecourses highlights the widely varying points of view taken by American breeders and their European, Arab, Japanese, and Australian counterparts.

In the Nov. 13, 2009, edition of Britain's racing daily, the Racing Post, British Thoroughbred owner Philip Freedman wrote: "There is a growing perception that the American breed is becoming somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, not least because of its continuing domination by traditional dirt racing, and the reliance which that creates on medications banned in other racing jurisdictions."

This is a problem that the split in non-turf American racing between dirt and synthetics only exacerbates. When all of America's non-turf races were run on dirt, American racing still gave breeders a good idea of what their produce could expect to achieve on that surface. Having to guess what surface a horse might act on since the advent of synthetic racing, especially at the graded stakes level, makes breeding even less of a science than it was before, at least in the United States.

This may eventually lead foreign breeders and owners to disdain the American breed altogether. Despite a general unhappiness with generations of American horses bred, raised, and raced on drugs, foreign buyers, especially those from Europe and the Arab world, dominated the high-end purchases at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale in August and the Keeneland September yearling sale. But with the yearling market a generally shaky one these days, there is no telling how much longer their interest in the top end of the American market will last.

In the long run, owners will always follow the money. That is the reason for the improvement in racing in Japan and Hong Kong, where races worth less than $100,000 are few and far between. Similarly, breeders tend to breed for the best races, and the overwhelming majority of those races are run on turf.

Of the world's synthetic track graded stakes races, 83.5 percent are run in the United States; 53.4 percent of the world's graded stakes races are run in the U.S. Subtract South America, where the racing hardly compares with that in America, Europe, and Australia, and the United states runs 81 percent of the world's dirt stakes.

Of the graded races run in the United States, 36.9 percent are run on turf. Subtract the American totals from the world totals, and we find 85 percent of the rest of the world's group or graded races are run on turf. The rest of the world is breeding with turf in mind, whereas only America and Argentina are breeding primarily with dirt in mind.

In the long run, this makes mincemeat of the relatively petty argument as to whether running on synthetics is safer than running on dirt, or whether, as Bob Baffert has proffered, that running on synthetics turns some good horses into mediocre horses. In fact, running on synthetics tends to frank the form of turf horses.

Freedman wrote: "The return of the Breeders' Cup to Churchill Downs and a true dirt surface in 2010 may appeal to traditionalists in American racing, and in particular to trainers and breeders who do not welcome the increased competition which the synthetic surfaces have brought to the sport."

Freedman, who owns horses in America as well as in Britain, was referring to the 11 races European-trained horses have won at the last two Breeders' Cups held at Santa Anita, on turf and on its Pro-Ride synthetic track. He was also hinting more forcefully at a creeping American protectionism that can only have a deleterious effect on a sport that needs as much support as it can muster - from any corner of the globe.