02/20/2014 2:54PM

Steven Crist: Tread wearing thin on synthetic era

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The announcement last week that Del Mar will replace its Polytrack racing surface with natural dirt for the 2015 racing season may well signal the end of the synthetic-track era in American racing after less than a decade.

The number of important races run over various synthetic surfaces peaked in 2008 and 2009, when 38 Grade 1 races each year – more than a third of the nation’s Grade 1 inventory – were run on Polytrack at Del Mar and Keeneland, Cushion Track at Hollywood, or Pro-Ride at Santa Anita. There were still 31 synthetic Grade 1 races in 2010 when the Breeders’ Cup and its seven main-track Grade 1’s moved to dirt at Churchill. Then Santa Anita switched back to dirt in 2011, Hollywood closed its doors for good at the end of 2013, and now Del Mar is switching back to dirt.

So from that high of 38 synthetic Grade 1’s in 2008 and 2009, there are likely to be just six synthetic Grade 1’s in 2015, all at Keeneland – unless and until that track switches back to dirt, a move many in the industry believe is now inevitable.

Keeneland’s signature main-track races – the Blue Grass and Ashland in the spring, and the Breeders’ Futurity, Alcibiades and Spinster in the fall – have declined in stature during the Polytrack era, having been won largely by grass horses who have had little other success in Grade 1 races on the dirt. When Keeneland had the only synthetic Grade 1 races in the sport back in 2006, it was a pioneer. If it still has them in 2015, after the biggest venues that followed its lead have changed back, it might instead be perceived as stubbornly clinging to a rejected technology despite its longtime motto of “Racing as it was meant to be.”

The proprietors of both Del Mar and Keeneland have said that they want to host Breeders’ Cups in the future, and while the Breeders’ Cup has taken no official position on requiring a dirt main track, it became clear after the 2008 and 2009 editions on Pro-Ride that the future of the series was on dirt.

“There is no way we would have gone back to Santa Anita so many times if they hadn’t gone back to dirt,” said one Breeders’ Cup board member. “And I think it has been made very clear to Del Mar and Keeneland that any chance they have of hosting a Breeders’ Cup is contingent on having dirt tracks.”

Regardless of what Keeneland does, the other elephant in the room when it comes to synthetic surfaces is the $10 million Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest race. The World Cup was conceived as a dirt race and when it was run at Nad Al-Sheba from 1996 through 2008, it routinely attracted top American dirt horses, including the victorious Cigar (1996), Silver Charm (1998), Captain Steve (2001), Pleasantly Perfect (2004), Invasor (2007), and Curlin (2008).

Since being run on a Tapeta surface at Meydan in 2010, it has become a nearly meaningless race beyond the money, with no championship implications and diminished American participation. Changing the World Cup from dirt to Tapeta was clearly a premature move, probably based on the Maktoum family’s false impression that racing in America and perhaps elsewhere was headed for a synthetic future.

Now, with synthetic Grade 1 racing on the verge of disappearing from the sport here, and little movement abroad toward racing top-class horses over anything but grass or dirt, running the world’s richest race on a synthetic surface makes it something of a white elephant, little more than a rich novelty.

Del Mar is currently searching for the right kind and mix of dirt for its new main track, and that reflects an opportunity for other American tracks now that the synthetic age is passing: To take the time, effort and money that was spent trying to invent new racing surfaces into improving the safety and quality of dirt tracks in this country.

While there was plenty of politics and misinformation behind the introduction of the synthetic tracks, many of their advocates were well intentioned, trying to improve the welfare of horses and riders. Now that the sport has pretty much decided to keep its main-track racing on dirt in this country, that goal should be preserved, and the entire industry should work together to make dirt racing as safe as it can be.