07/30/2008 11:00PM

Mid-meet graded stakes gap at Spa

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Back through the mists of time in the days before Banana Republic, The Gap, and Starbucks came to Saratoga, the annual race meeting was four weeks long and the quartet of Saturdays was known simply as Whitney Day, Alabama Day, Travers Day, and Hopeful Day. Nowadays, it's a sextet that starts with Breeders' Cup Challenge Day and ends with Woodward Day. There's still an Alabama and a Travers Day as the fourth and fifth Saturdays, but I've got a friendly sawbuck that says you can't name the other two.

Give up? The second Saturday feature is now a race that used to be run on the second day of the meeting: The Test, which used to be run on the first Thursday as a prep for the Alabama nine days later. It's true - 3-year-old fillies routinely raced twice in nine days, at seven and then 10 furlongs, and nobody called the cops or convened a Congressional hearing. This year's Test drew a field of six sprinters, including champion Indian Blessing, none expected to return for the Alabama.

Test Day was the easy one. The Test is the last Grade 1 stakes at the meeting until the Sword Dancer and Alabama are run Aug. 16, a 14-day gap that is believed to be the longest ever here between top-class races. In fact, there are no graded races at all here this year between Monday's Grade 2 Hall of Fame and Alabama Day. The feature next Saturday? The Yaddo, a grass race restricted to New York-bred fillies. Not exactly Whitney, Alabama, Travers, or Hopeful Day.

There are lots of reasons for the changes, including the clustering of the Whitney, Go for Wand, Diana, and Vanderbilt on the first Saturday for a Win and You're In Breeders' Cup/ESPN television package. The biggest reason, though, is the extra space everyone wants nowadays between races. Three-year-olds used to prep for the Travers in the Jim Dandy 13 days earlier; now it's a 27-day gap. With four weeks the preferred spacing in most divisions, it's not surprising that the meeting starts and ends strongly with a long barren stretch in between.

It will be interesting to see if this year's historically long lull between important events has any effect on business here, which is off to a slow start, albeit with an early opening and some miserable weather last week.

N.Y. looks at synthetic tracks

Three years ago, in August 2005, New York state legislators established a Task Force on Retired Racehorses, specifying six areas of study such as adoption programs and greater involvement by state colleges and universities. A year and a half later, after no visible action or progress, the legislature extended the task force until early 2010 and added a seventh topic to its scope: the feasibility of "installing at race courses, artificial turf that has an impact absorbing quality which can minimize or eliminate catastrophic injuries . . . Such investigation and research shall include an analysis of the cost and benefits of installing such artificial turf."

What artificial "turf" has to do with caring for retired racehorses is entirely unclear, but the topic was a hot one following California's 2006 mandate for synthetic surfaces, and it remains a sufficiently sexy issue that the task force had its first public hearing this past Tuesday in Saratoga - exclusively on synthetic tracks. There were presentations by five panels - track operators, veterinarians, trainers, jockeys, and researchers. As usual, no fans or horseplayers.

The most striking thing about the testimony presented is how quickly the initial enthusiasm for synthetics seems to have waned, replaced by widespread skepticism about some of the initial claims in its favor and a general call for patience and a great deal more data before anyone else follows California's lead. There appears to be no support at all for replacing New York's dirt racing surfaces, though there is some interest in trying a synthetic training track or even adding a synthetic inner course at Belmont exclusively for races rained off the turf. No other American track is currently scheduled to install a synthetic surface.

The other point that is emerging from all the discussion of synthetics is how badly the industry needs the comprehensive injury-reporting database now being established by The Jockey Club and others. Not only is there no meaningful data about whether the new surfaces are an improvement, but no one can even answer the question of whether there are more catastrophic breakdowns than there were a generation or two ago, or what significance there is to factors such as age, distance, or the possible effects of medication. All we really know is that horses are racing a lot less frequently than they used to - just look at the Saratoga stakes schedule - but it's still anyone's guess exactly why that is.