10/26/2008 11:00PM

Synthetic impact deeper than surface


ARCADIA, Calif. - Since the introduction of synthetic racetracks in the United States, bettors have struggled to understand them, and leaders of the industry have debated their merits. But after the Breeders' Cup was contested over a synthetic surface for the first time, and European colt Raven's Pass upset America's best horse, Curlin, the outcome surely will crystallize fans' ideas about synthetics. It should also stimulate an intensified discussion about the proper place of these tracks in the spectrum of American racing.

Synthetic tracks were introduced to California and other locations as a new, improved substitute for traditional dirt; they were supposed to be safer and fairer. The Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita lived up to its billing in these respects. No breakdowns or other mishaps marred the action on Friday and Saturday. And Pro-Ride was fair in a sense that is alien to most American racing fans.

On Friday, undefeated mare Zenyatta swooped from last place and circled the field to win the Ladies' Classic. The 2-year-old Stardom Bound did the same winning the Juvenile Fillies. Raven's Pass won the Classic with a strong, wide rally. However, this confluence of events was not - as many bettors suspected - because of a bias that hindered speed horses on the rail and favored wide stretch-runners. (In the Juvenile on Saturday, speed horses ran 1-2-3 around the track.) Synthetic tracks give come-from-behind runners a fair chance, and their frequent success looks like an aberration compared with typical speed-favoring American dirt tracks. The results Friday and Saturday would never have occurred on the old Santa Anita track. On Pro-Ride, the best horse won.

More specifically, the best horse won if he liked running on a synthetic surface. If the Breeders' Cup proved anything, it demonstrated that synthetics are not another version of dirt. Racing over them is a different game that has more in common with turf racing that it does with dirt. The Classic was Exhibit A. Curlin had excelled on dirt surfaces from Churchill Downs to Dubai, but on Pro-Ride he finished fourth behind two Europeans - Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator - who had spent their entire careers running on grass. After the defeat, Curlin's trainer Steve Asmussen offered a succinct explanation: "It was a turf race." Similar examples abounded. Ventura, a Grade 1 stakes winner on the grass, won the Filly and Mare Sprint by beating the best female dirt sprinter in the nation, Indian Blessing.

While there was a clear correlation between form on turf and Pro-Ride, only a few Breeders' Cup performers were top-level performers on both dirt and synthetics. Zenyatta was one, and Midnight Lute, who scored his second straight victory in the Sprint, was another. Not a single horse won on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride without showing previous good form on either turf or a synthetic track. Good dirt form barely mattered. This is a lesson that handicappers should remember whenever they evaluate dirt runners on a synthetic track.

So what did the weekend's races prove? The Breeders' Cup bills itself as the World Thoroughbred Championships, but were these merely the World Synthetic Championships? Greg Avioli, president of the Breeders' Cup, said, "I think all [races] are a test of who likes the particular track," but that is a specious argument. The Breeders' Cup was created 25 years ago to give the sport its definitive championship events and it has succeeded memorably; when Ferdinand beat Alysheba, when Sunday Silence beat Easy Goer, and when Curlin defeated Street Sense last year, the races produced an acclaimed champion - not just a horse who preferred a particular surface.

When the Breeders' Cup is run on a synthetic surface - as it will be again at Santa Anita next year - it is unlikely to attract such confrontations among stars who made their reputations in the Triple Crown and other dirt races. The example of Curlin will be a caution to every owner and trainer; by trying to be a sportsman and reluctantly running his colt on a surface where he was untested, owner Jess Jackson may have cost Curlin the Horse of the Year title. Still, if top dirt runners duck the Breeders' Cup in years when it is contested on a synthetic track, the sport will be back to where it was 25 years ago.

Yet Avioli was unfazed by the prospect that top American dirt runners might bypass races on synthetic tracks. The Breeders' Cup's priority is to make itself more of an international event. "International stars," Avioli said, "are better than domestic stars." Synthetic tracks will lure the stars from Europe because a turf specialist such as Raven's Pass is more apt to handle the surface than a dirt runner such as Curlin.

Perhaps internationalizing the Breeders' Cup in this way makes good marketing sense, but it still seems an odd priority for the U.S. horse industry. American breeders created this event. Their nomination fees make possible the big purses for the Cup races. The Breeders' Cup has showcased American racing at its best and produced some of the greatest drama in the sport's history. Why should the industry want to change a two-century tradition of racing on dirt in order to accommodate the Europeans? It is one of the many questions still unresolved after the first synthetic Breeders' Cup.

(c) 2008, The Washington Post