10/23/2008 11:00PM

Root for Curlin; don't bet him

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Curlin would ordinarily be the cynosure of the Breeders' Cup. The defending U.S. Horse of the Year and the top money-winning North American Thoroughbred of all time is favored to end his career with a victory in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.

Yet the most intriguing and talked-about subject at Santa Anita is not Curlin or any other horse, but the surface that will be underneath their feet. For the first time, the Breeders' Cup is being contested over a synthetic track - a substance known as Pro-Ride, consisting of sand, fiber, and a polymer binding agent - instead of dirt.

With the Breeders' Cup now expanded to 14 races run over two days, eight of the events were to be run on Pro-Ride, with the other six on grass. Each of the Pro-Ride races posed difficult questions for bettors. How do you evaluate a horse such as Curlin who has scored all of his victories on dirt? How do you judge a European grass runner racing on a synthetic surface for the first time? Should you bet an inferior animal with proven synthetic-track form against a superior rival with no such form?

In the three years since synthetic tracks appeared in the U.S., there has been no consensus among horseplayers on these issues. The differences of opinion are sharp. Andy Serling, in-house racing analyst for the New York Racing Association, declares: "The synthetic tracks are more like synthetic turf courses than dirt courses. They should paint them all green."

Bill Finley, author of "Betting Synthetic Surfaces," writes: "I cringe when I hear horseplayers insist dirt and synthetic tracks bear little resemblance to each other." Finley says the best horse usually wins on a synthetic surface.

The results at Santa Anita should help crystallize public opinion on the subject. My own shaky opinion is that I won't take a short price on a dirt runner who is unproven on synthetic surfaces. Although I would like to see Curlin end his career covered with glory, I will bet against him Saturday.

The champion seems vulnerable for more than one reason. His recent wins on the dirt have not been impressive, by his standards. His speed figures have declined significantly since he won the Classic at Monmouth Park last year. Even without the unknown factor of Pro-Ride, Curlin would be beatable.

The horses who have been running well on synthetic surfaces in California don't appear to be top-class animals (although I could make a case for one longshot, Student Council.) Besides Curlin, the most talented horses in the field are the three European invaders - Duke of Marmalade, Henrythenavigator, and Raven's Pass - who have accounted for 10 Group 1 wins against the best competition on the continent. Raven's Pass is the only one of the three who appears to be coming into the Classic in peak form, and I will gamble that he takes to the Pro-Ride and pulls an upset.

While the Classic is a race filled with uncertainties because of the synthetic track, there are interesting opportunities in many of the other races.

Saturday's best bets may arise in grass races that don't involve the uncertainties of Pro-Ride:

Turf - The European invader Soldier of Fortune appears to be the best horse in the field, but as a speed handicapper I am willing to take a shot against him. Two U.S. horses, Out of Control and Grand Couturier, earned Beyer Speed Figures of 112 in their last starts - a figure good enough to win most prior runnings of the Turf. Grand Couturier ran at Belmont Park over very soft grass, conditions that may have aided him, but Out of Control earned his big number over the same hard Santa Anita turf course where he'll be running tomorrow. He is 10-1 in the morning line, and he can pull an upset.

Turf Sprint - This is a European game. The U.S. horses who specialize in sprinting on the grass are not, for the most part, top-class animals; five of the horses in this field are ex-claimers. But there is no doubt about the superior class of Fleeting Spirit, who endured an array of misadventures in her last start in France and still managed to finish within three lengths behind Europe's champion sprinter.

Juvenile Turf - On paper, the top North American entrants look evenly matched. Bittel Road beat Skipadate in a photo finish at Saratoga, then came out of that race to win a Grade 2 stakes at Keeneland. Skipadate went to Woodbine and lost a photo finish in a stakes race to Grand Adventure.

In that Woodbine race, however, Grand Adventure made a strong five-wide move to prevail, even though Skipadate had an easy ground-saving trip. He was clearly better than Skipadate, and is clearly better than most of his rivals Saturday, though it is uncertain how he compares with the stakes-winning Irish invader Westphalia. I will bet Grand Adventure to win and box him in the exacta with Westphalia. I will also play this race to kick off a pick four that may end with Curlin's loss in the Classic.

(c) 2008, The Washington Post