03/27/2014 12:11PM

Steven Crist: Marathon day of major races

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There isn’t much marathon racing for horses in the United States anymore, but there are more and more marathon days of racing, with two of the richest and longest on Saturday: A 14-race card at Gulfstream, beginning at noon Eastern and ending with the Florida Derby at 6:48 p.m., and a 13-race card at Fair Grounds that starts at 12:30 p.m. Central and features the Louisiana Derby at 6:10 p.m., ending with a maiden-claiming race at 7:20.

Those who find those 27 races an inadequate buffet can get started earlier at 9 a.m. Eastern with the shorter Dubai World Cup card at Meydan, where eight Thoroughbred races offer $27 million in purses.

On top of everything else, these three cards each offer the first 170-point Kentucky Derby qualifying races on the road to Louisville, with the $1 million Florida Derby, the $1 million Louisiana Derby, and, at Meydan, the $2 million UAE Derby.

Beyond offering a seven-digit Kentucky Derby prep purse, the two domestic cards appear similar at first glance. Gulfstream offers $2.6 million over 14 races, including seven graded stakes worth a combined $2 million. Fair Grounds has 13 races with total purses of $2.4 million and has four graded stakes offering a combined $2.1 million. Yet there are telling differences in the two programs.

The Gulfstream card is more consistently strong from start to finish: Eight stakes, two allowances, and four maiden specials, as opposed to a Fair Grounds menu that includes four races restricted to Louisiana-breds and two for low-level maiden claimers.

On the other hand, the supporting graded stakes at Fair Grounds offer substantially bigger purses. Its three graded stakes beyond the Louisiana Derby, all Grade 2 races, are worth a combined $1.1 million – the $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks, $400,000 New Orleans Handicap, and $300,000 Mervin Muniz. Gulfstream’s six other graded stakes – two Grade 2 races and four Grade 3 races – add up to just $1 million, with purses of $300,000 for the Gulfstream Oaks, $200,000 for the Pan American, $150,000 for the Rampart and the Orchid, and $100,000 for the Appleton and the Skip Away.

Gulfstream has clustered its races more attractively for multi-race bettors: Its late pick-four on races 11-14 is an appealing stakesfest of the Appleton, Skip Away, Pan Am, and Florida Derby. The late pick four at Fair Grounds starts out strong with the Fair Grounds Oaks and Louisiana Derby but concludes with two statebred races, one an allowance and the other a maiden claimer.

That’s part of the reason, the main one being a wider regular customer base, that Gulfstream will outhandle Fair Grounds on Saturday, but both should post meet-high figures and either will attract far more U.S. betting action than the racing at Meydan despite its offering 10 times as much in purse money.

Desert sands shifting

American horsemen’s interest in the Dubai races has waned since that track installed a synthetic surface, and the World Cup, the world’s richest race at $10 million, has featured uncharacteristically poor form from top U.S. horses such as Game On Dude and Royal Delta.

The most intriguing aspect of this year’s running may be the increasing speculation that this will be the last run on the Tapeta surface that was installed in 2010. Changing that surface, coupled with the closing of Hollywood Park and the scheduled return to dirt from Polytrack at Del Mar in 2015, would effectively end the idea of global Grade 1 racing on synthetic surfaces.

“Rumors are swirling the corridors of Meydan that the Tapeta surface is going to be ripped up and replaced with dirt,” according to RacingUK.com, which also reported that Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum has grown unhappy with the surface and would prefer to see the race run on grass or dirt. Sheikh Hamdan, a key member of Dubai’s ruling family, won the 2007 World Cup with Invasor when the race was run on dirt at Nad al Sheba.

If the footing is changed, which way will it go? Turf would obviously be more attractive to the Europeans, but is there really room or a need for a $10 million, 10-furlong grass race on a card that already offers two $5 million grass races at nine and 12 furlongs (the Duty Free and Sheema Classic)? A return to dirt would make it as much of an unknown for most foreign-based horses as Tapeta is for everyone now, but it might well start attracting top American-based horses again – as it did in the years when Cigar, Silver Charm, Captain Steve, Pleasantly Perfect, Roses in May, Invasor, Curlin, and Well Armed won it.