04/25/2008 12:00AM

Polytrack isn't the remedy


NEW YORK - Polytrack, thy name is trouble.

The long delayed opening of Great Leighs Racecourse, England's latest addition to the world of artificial surfaces, went off without a hitch last Sunday, if opening a racetrack with an unfinished grandstand and an invited-only crowd of 350 can be called hitchless.

In their rush to open Britain's newest Polytrack racecourse, Great Leighs officials have left many details hanging, and while those faults cannot be laid to the phenomenon that is Polytrack, trouble does seem to follow the synthetic surface at a close distance.

Jockeys and trainers proclaimed the Great Leighs surface a resounding success. Without being paid a fee, John Gosden exulted to the Racing Post that it is "way the best all-weather track in Britain, and as good as you'll find anywhere in the world," a veiled reference, perhaps, to his former stomping grounds in Southern California, where synthetic surfaces have radically changed the complexion of the game.

Gosden compared Great Leighs to Belmont Park with its wide, sweeping, left-handed turns that don't require a horse to shorten stride on tight turns like those at most American tracks. Great Leighs is planning a Breeders' Cup preview day of sorts this fall. That meeting could come in handy for Europeans, since the next two Breeders' Cups will be run at Santa Anita, where its troubled synthetic surface is slated to remain in place, at least until further notice.

Artificial surfaces in England now number five, with Polytrack at Lingfield, Kempton, Wolverhampton, and Great Leighs, plus a Fibresand track at Southwell. France has Polytracks at Deauville, Cagnes-sur-Mer, and Pau, while Ireland has one at Dundalk. One thing about these European synthetics, they have all been introduced where they belong, at racing's bottom rung. Only two Group 3 races are run on Polytrack in Europe, the Winter Derby and the Churchill Stakes, both at Lingfield.

On this side of the Atlantic we are about to discover what it means to prepare on synthetic tracks for Triple Crown races run on traditional dirt. That we now run top-class races in this country on three entirely different surfaces must be recognized as a phenomenon that runs much deeper than a mere handicapping angle. There is also the question of why California and Arlington rushed so quickly to end 75 years of tradition to switch from dirt to artificial surfaces.

In mandating that all California tracks must install synthetics, the California Horse Racing Board thought it was acting in the best interests of the horses. But in accepting the conventional wisdom that synthetics are kinder to horses than dirt tracks, they have merely placed a band-aid on a gaping wound.

Thoroughbreds are not breaking down in record numbers simply because they are running on dirt. The two main causes of the carnage at Del Mar and Arlington in 2006 were raceday medication and the American breeding industry's insistence on breeding for speed, to which the American racing industry acquiesces all too readily by carding up to 80 percent of its races at sprint distances.

When horses that run on infirmity-masking medications win races, they proceed to the breeding shed, where they pass those infirmities on to their offspring. With each passing generation, the ailments afflicting the American Thoroughbred are thus exacerbated. We now find ourselves in a situation where virtually every horse in training is running on Lasix and/or painkillers, as did most of their sires and dams and many of their grandsires and granddams.

In California, the application of the painkiller Butazolidin relieves pain, but not the cause of the pain. Sooner or later, the cause of the pain causes a horse to break down, no matter what surface he runs on. That is what happened at Del Mar in 2006 and continues to happen too frequently today.

Moreover, by breeding horses for speed we have produced generations of horses with quick-actioned, spindly legs, but horses that retain the heavy tops of the mid-20th century Thoroughbred. This puts added stress on a horse's underpinnings, increasing the frequency of leg ailments, especially in sprints, problems which Californians add to with the administration of Butazolidin.

The solution to the problem is not the misguided quick fix of synthetic tracks, but the elimination of raceday medication and a change of direction by the American breeding industry. We must begin to breed more horses capable of staying well beyond a mile and carding more races for those horses, whether they be on turf, dirt, or Polytrack. And we must race them clean like they do in Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Strange decision by Breeders' Cup

Sunday's Champions Mile at Sha Tin is the first foreign race to be part of the Breeders' Cup's Win and You're In scheme, giving rise to two questions.

Why is this race part of that program when no horse trained in Hong Kong has ever run in the Breeders' Cup?

And how does winning a race in April qualify a horse to run in a race that won't be run until October?