08/17/2007 12:00AM

New York surface choices will be key


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Every Thursday at Saratoga, the card begins with a steeplechase, a nod to tradition and a time when such racing was far more prevalent and popular. A decade from now, will Saratoga similarly honor racing's past once a week by running that onetime staple known as a dirt race?

Some of the architects of American racing hope that dirt racing will soon become a thing of the past. This year alone, Del Mar and Keeneland have joined Turfway and Woodbine in switching from dirt to Polytrack, while Hollywood went to Cushion Track, another synthetic surface, which is being installed at Santa Anita as well. More than a third of non-turf Grade 1 races in the country next year will be run on a synthetic surface, including the first synthetic Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita.

Whether New York's Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga eventually abandon dirt is the tipping-point question that will determine whether we will have two types of main-track racing in this country or are headed for an all-synthetic future. Churchill Downs, Gulfstream, and Pimlico are other major tracks where that decision will be made in the next few years, but it is New York that will make the key choices.

The debate over synthetic surfaces has been oversimplified into a black-and-white issue of safety, with blinkered adherents claiming that if you're not for going synthetic everywhere tomorrow, you're in favor of injuries to horses. Some of the initial evidence is highly promising that synthetic surfaces produce fewer racing injuries than dirt tracks, but in the absence of any long-term trials, there are many unresolved questions about other injuries it may produce.

With Polytrack, there have been serious problems everywhere it has been installed, because of far greater variations in American weather than its British developers anticipated. At Keeneland, which is a partial owner of the company and its American distributor, the surface played so slowly and jockeys were so afraid to go to the front that much of the racing was inscrutable to customers and horsemen alike, and a major race like the Blue Grass was reduced to a meaningless joke. At Turfway, everyone celebrated a decline in fatalities from 27 to three in the first year of Polytrack, but the toll rose back to 15 when the surface could not handle a long freeze earlier this year. At Woodbine, track officials complained the surface was "broken" and that they had "paid for a Cadillac and gotten a Chevrolet." At Del Mar, owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert pulled their top 2-year-olds and sent them East, saying that Polytrack problems had sent them packing.

Cushion Track, on the other hand, won nearly universal praise at Hollywood. Handicappers who feared their pastime would be ruined found that the racing was nearly identical to the way it had been. There were some new nuances to be considered, and the cheapest of cheap speed might not hold on the way it used to, but it was a smoother transition than at any venue that installed Polytrack.

Since we still don't know who's going to be operating New York's tracks next year, it's unclear what the decision here will be, but a two-step approach is a likelier outcome than an overnight conversion. Every franchise bidder supports introducing synthetic surfaces to the training tracks at Belmont and Saratoga before tearing up the historic and popular main tracks, and probably making Aqueduct the guinea pig for synthetic racing by replacing the widely unloved inner track.

This seems like a prudent approach, given that the vast majority of breakdowns occur in training rather than racing. It may well turn out that training on synthetic and racing on a good, safe dirt track is as effective a safety measure as Polytrack, and won't turn centuries of racing, breeding, and handicapping upside down. Or perhaps the synthetics can be refined: The goal should be to make safer tracks that play as much like the old dirt as possible, not to socially engineer a new type of racing where everyone walks early and sprints late.

After Baffert won Wednesday's Adirondack Stakes here with More Happy, whom he shipped out of Del Mar because he thinks she runs much better on dirt than synthetics, he was stumped when asked where she would make her next start.

"Maybe Hastings Park," he said, and while he was joking about sending her to Vancouver, he was making an interesting point: He wants to run her around two turns in her next start, which rules out the one-turn fall races at Belmont. In previous years he would have instead sent her to Turfway for the Kentucky Cup or Keeneland for the Alcibiades, but both of those races are now Polytrack events, and Santa Anita's Oak Leaf will be run on Cushion Track.

It's a kind of dilemma we're going to see more and more of on racing's schizophrenic new landscape.