03/09/2007 12:00AM

A rush to judgment on synthetic surfaces


NEW YORK - Has the American racing industry succumbed to Polytrackitis?

Not only has the California Horse Racing Board mandated that all of the major tracks in the state must follow the lead of Hollywood Park in replacing their dirt tracks with synthetic surfaces, Arlington Park will shortly be installing a Polytrack surface. The speed with which these changes are being made follows rapidly on the heels of a series of horrific breakdowns at Arlington, Del Mar, and Santa Anita. While synthetic surfaces may be many things, among them safer than traditional dirt, the rush to artificial surfaces may be little more than a panicky Band-Aid applied to a festering sore.

That Polytrack, Fibresand, and Cushion Track are easier on a horse's legs than traditional dirt surfaces there is no doubt. The British, inventors of all three surfaces, found that out 15 years ago when they first installed a Polytrack inside the Lingfield Park turf course. It took 13 years before we Yanks woke up to the benefits of the thing when Turfway Park finally got around to installing one of its own.

But the injuries that American horses suffer in racing and training can be blamed on more than racing surfaces alone. The design of the track has much to do with it, as does the distance of the races. Britain's three Polytracks at Lingfield, Kempton, and Wolverhampton, as well as the French Polytracks at Deauville and Cagnes-sur-Mer, have wide, sweeping turns with long straights. Moreover, there are many more races run there at a mile or longer than there are in America. The new U.S. synthetic tracks will be used, as are all American dirt tracks, primarily - and in some cases almost exclusively - for sprints. The tension caused by horses reaching the first turn in such events will be eased only slightly by the new synthetic surfaces.

Moreover, all of our synthetic surface races will be contested by horses running on raceday medication, a prime reason for the deterioration of the American Thoroughbred. By contrast, the horses running on synthetic surfaces in England and France are drug-free.

While horseplayers are scrambling to adjust their figures to the new, presumably bias-free surface, American owners active in the European market are jumping all over each other in an effort to find a synthetic-surface horse who might blossom in America.

More than half of the British-trained horses who have been imported into the United States since October have run on one or another of Britain's artificial surfaces. None has created as much of a sensation as Medici Code, a three-time winner on what the British euphemistically call their all-weather tracks.

By Medicean, a Group 1 winner in England at a mile and 1 1/4 miles, and out of a mare by leading European sire Fairy King, Medici Code would not appear to be a leading candidate for any of America's most important dirt or synthetic-surface races. Yet he has transferred his turf pedigree into success on both Fibresand and Polytrack in England, opening the eyes of Britain's most jaded handicappers with a 14-length cakewalk in a one-mile handicap on Southwell's Fibresand track on Jan. 23 in his fourth career start and his first start since having been gelded.

Some observers called it the single most impressive all-weather score in British racing history. He followed up just five days later with a deceptively easy 1 1/4-length score in 1o1/16-mile handicap on a sloppy Lingfield Polytrack. Then, just three days after that, he cruised to an even easier five-length handicap tally back on the Southwell Fibresand going a mile.

Medici Code's achievements did not escape ace American bloodstock agent Richard Duggan, who promptly secured the 3-year-old for Bill and Donna Herrick for 300,000 pounds, or $585,000, a price that is even more remarkable than what Medici Code has accomplished on the racecourse to date.

In fact, the sum the Herricks dished out for Medici Code is downright astonishing, considering the quality of competition - or lack of same - their new purchase has been facing. All-weather racing in Britain, while improving, remains low-end stuff. Medici Code's three wins on the synthetic came at the expense of Britain's bottom-end handicappers, and as impressive as they were visually, they garnered low Timeform ratings of, in chronological order, 84+, 75+, and 75+, hardly numbers to get excited about.

Have the Herricks, who have turned Medici Code over to trainer Darrell Vienna, bought themselves a lemon? In their effort to capitalize on Polytrackitis, only time will tell.

For in our collective headlong rush into a brave new synthetic world, gauging the future of racing on artificial surfaces may prove to be as difficult as cracking the Medici Code itself.