10/21/2009 11:00PM

Stallions a big piece of the Pro-Ride puzzle


Many a Southern California handicapper has said the age of synthetic footings on the circuit has thrown them for a loop. Some would go so far as to say it has thrown them under the bus.

Regardless of one's feelings about synthetics, they're here. Now. If you want to play Southern California races you have to adapt, just like the horsemen who ply their trade over the new surfaces.

Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface has been called "turf friendly." There are two meanings to that phrase. First, many a turf horse won't perform on dirt because of the kick-back, the sand that is splashed by one horse into the faces of those behind him. The Pro-Ride reduces such a hindrance, and as a result turf horses tend to run well on it.

Second, the nature of the surface can also lead to a race shape more like a turf race. Horses don't go as fast early as they do on dirt, turning the race into a sprint, much like a turf race. For that reason, we may be seeing bunched-up finishes, and that's also why some Beyer Speed Figures are not coming back as high as one might anticipate, instead looking more like grass figures.

As far as predicting performance over this track, you have to give an edge to horses that have already handled Hollywood's Cushion Track or Del Mar's Polytrack. They may be different types of synthetic but at least they give you some clue as to a horse's proclivity over Pro-Ride.

Another angle that you might think would help is pedigree. If the surface is really "turf friendly," then does it follow that a turf pedigree would allow a horse to thrive on it? It's difficult to designate a certain sire as just "dirt" or "turf" or "synthetic." California's top sire Unusual Heat, for example, gets runners who will perform on anything and everything. A sire such as Pulpit, known mostly for his runners' dirt prowess, has had runners win on all surfaces.

But it would be helpful to know what kind of sires have been getting winners on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride. Has it been sires known primarily for dirt runners, or sires known for their turf runners? Sires who won sprinting at 2, or those who were at their best routing as older horses? It's a very small sample, to be sure, but a look at the sire lines that have produced winners the first three weeks of this meet seems to suggest there is no pattern.

The results of the first three weeks of the meet have seen winners from all types of sires, which seems to make using the stallion angle on the Pro-Ride precarious.

Through the first three weeks of the meet (16 days) there were 98 races on the main track. Of all sires only 11 have produced more than one winner; only one produced more than two. Perhaps it's fitting that the only sire with three main-track winners in that time span is Johannesburg, one of the most versatile horses of the last couple decades. Johannesburg was a multiple Group 1 winner on the turf in Europe at 2. To show his adaptability, he came to the U.S. and romped in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile - on dirt - and was named champion 2-year-old in both Europe and the U.S. That ability to handle different surfaces has apparently been passed on to his progeny, as they certainly have handled the Santa Anita Pro-Ride well.

Among the 10 sires with two victories you see stallions from all ranges of categories. They include top 2-year-old sprinter-milers Cuvee and Chapel Royal; top-class sprinter-milers as older males Northern Afleet, Yankee Gentleman, and Stormin Afleet; routers Pollard's Vision, Pure Prize, and Benchmark; and Redattore, who like Johannesburg proved himself top-class on both turf and dirt. Muqtarib, the only other with two winners, also won on turf and dirt.

Other sires whose offspring have won at the meet include the dirt routers Thunder Gulch, Tiznow, Formal Gold, Fusaichi Pegasus, Awesome Again, Street Cry, Repent, and Victory Gallop; top-class sprinters Orientate, Gilded Time, and El Corredor; and turf horses Singletary, Unusual Heat, Stravinsky, Decarchy, Black Minnaloushe, and Giant's Causeway.

Even Smart Strike, sire of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, whose fourth in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic may be a reason why Rachel Alexandra won't be coming for the Breeders' Cup, has produced a winner this meet.

Again, this is obviously a very small sample; things may play out differently during the longer Santa Anita winter-spring meet when we will get a better sample. But it's still interesting that no category of sire has found outstanding success on this surface and was able to get some separation from the pack. And maybe on this Pro-Ride, where many a race sees fields finish well bunched, that's a fitting result.