03/02/2009 12:00AM

Seeking synthetic scores

Email

The presence of Dansant in Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap signals the latest effort of European trainers to win a big American race on a synthetic surface. Emboldened by the synthetic victories of Raven's Pass, Muhannak and Square Eddie last year, Gerard Butler has sent his Dansili 5-year-old in search of the Big Cap's $600,000 first prize.

Don't bet on it. Raven's Pass was a proven Group 1 winner on turf in Europe, where virtually all of the best racing is conducted on grass. Square Eddie had managed a second-place finish in one of only three European group races run on synthetic surfaces, the Sirenia Stakes, which was run on Sept. 6 at the height of the British turf season.

While Dansant has won 5 of 8 starts on Polytrack surfaces in England, and while all five of those victories have come at the two best synthetic tracks in that country, Lingfield and Kempton, they have all come during the winter months, when virtually all of the best British horses have been put away for the duration. All five of those wins were in listed races, but against the sort of competition that Raven's Pass would have chewed up on turf.

Moreover, Dansant would probably prefer 1o1/2 miles to the Big Cap's 1 1/4 miles. At the latter distance he split a pair of decisions with the ex-handicapper Suits Me, who has since been second in Lingfield's listed 1 1/4-mile Winter Derby Trial, hardly an advertisement for Dansant's Big Cap chances.

Dansant's proper level in America is ungraded stakes company at best, probably closer to allowance company over at least 1 1/4 miles.

The number of synthetic-surface runners being imported to America from Europe has been steadily increasing during the past year. At least half of all the British imports we have received during that time have synthetic form. They are being brought here to take advantage of the many new synthetic tracks that have been built of late in this country. Keep in mind, however, that synthetic racing in Europe remains low-end stuff, especially from mid-November and mid-March when there is no turf racing in Britain and Ireland, and very little in France.

These are the six major synthetic tracks in Europe.

Kempton Park - Right-handed, level Kempton ranks with Lingfield as the best Polytrack in England. It is the site of two of the three European synthetic Group 3's, the Sirenia Stakes for 2-year-olds and the 1 1/2-mile September Stakes for 3-year-olds and up. The racing is better in summer and fall than in the winter, but is low-end just the same. The exceptions are a few maidens in which big stables from Newmarket and Newbury may try one of their more forward juveniles. It has eight listed races on its schedule, only one during the turf season, the Floodlit Stakes in early November.

Lingfield Park - Left-handed, hilly Lingfield resembles Epsom, especially the turf course, which runs outside of the Polytrack. It runs a single Group 3, the 1 1/4-mile Winter Derby for older horses on March 21, a race for which Dansant would have been one of the favorites had he stayed home. Lingfield and Kempton both attract many runners from Nemarket, where a majority of the best British stables are located. Lingfield runs 10 listed races per year, all but two, the Fleur de Lys Stakes and the River Eden Stakes, during the winter.

Wolverhampton - A left-handed, level Polytrack oval located more than 100 miles from both Newmarket and Newbury, Wolverhampton rates at least a notch below Kempton and Lingfield. It has a single listed race on its schedule, the Lady Wilfruna Stakes, which will be run this Saturday.

Southwell - Like Wolverhampton, Southwell is a level, left-handed oval, but it has a Fibresand course that is considerably slower than Polytrack. Located about 60 miles northeast of Wolverhampton, it is even further away from England's major southern training centers. Horses that have done well at Southwell to the exclusion of Kempton or Lingfield, or even Wolverhampton, would be no better than modest claimers in the American hinterlands.

Dundalk - Ireland's first synthetic track, a left-handed Polytrack oval, it is already producing runners in America on a level somewhere between Lingfield and Wolverhampton. Aidan O'Brien threatened to prep Henrythenavigator there for the Breeders' Cup Classic but changed his mind. Dundalk has five listed races on its schedule and is hoping to develop a few of them into group race affairs.

Deauville - One of Europe's most important turf tracks, Deauville is the French equivalent of Saratoga in terms of turf racing. It now has an all-weather track inside of its turf track, a level, right-handed oval on which are run a large handful of races in August, some of which approach the quality of their turf equivalents. A few years ago it instituted an early December to early January meeting and a brief mid-March meeting, both of them exclusively all-weather, and the quality is at least as good as Kempton and Deauville. Vertigineux, second to Archipenko in the Group 3 Zabeel Mile at Nad Al Sheba last week and a leading contender for the Dubai Duty Free, won the Prix Luthier there on Dec. 4, one of Deauville's six synthetic listed races.