03/28/2013 1:47PM

Synthetic sires: Overall quality can trump a turf pedigree

Photos by Z
Smart Strike, who stands at Lane’s End Farm, has progeny who have had success on dirt, synthetic, and turf.

When the first major racetracks began converting their dirt main tracks to synthetic surfaces in the mid-2000s, it added a new element to the sport. While it seemed as if synthetic was just a substitute for dirt, that was not the case, as all observers of racing quickly found out, and it put every stallion in North America at the same starting point: Who would be a good sire of runners on synthetic surfaces?

Six years later, leaders and laggards have sorted themselves out on synthetic, but a generation of runners has proven the timeless adage that a good sire can get winners on any surface.

[MORE: Statistics for the leading synthetic-surface sires in North America.]

Artificial surfaces now typically carry the reputation of favoring horses bred for turf. During the recent Spiral Stakes card at Turfway Park, which features a Polytrack surface, the winning connections of both the Grade 3 Spiral and the Bourbonette Oaks cited their horses’ ability on turf as a main reason for pointing their horses for the Turfway races. However, the belief that a turf-laden pedigree will equate to success on synthetic tracks is far from universal.

“That’s baloney,” said Mark Casse, a perennial leading trainer at Woodbine, which has Polytrack as its main surface. “I do believe that we have three surfaces; that some horses prefer one over others, but I can tell you there are a lot of turf horses that won’t run over synthetic, as well.”

The numbers support the notion that the best all-around sires also make the best sires of synthetic runners. Of the top 20 North American stallions by total progeny earnings since 2006 – the first full year for modern all-weather surfaces in North America – 12 are also among the top 20 by lifetime synthetic earnings. Ten sires each reside in both top 20 lists by starts and wins, as well.

On comparative lists with the top 20 turf sires since 2006, 11 cross over as leading earners on synthetic and turf, while seven are on both lists by starts and nine by wins.

Arguably the most successful all-around sire in the synthetic era has been Smart Strike, who is the only stallion in North America with 100 or more progeny starts on synthetic surfaces to reside in the top 15 by all-time synthetic wins, earnings, and earnings per start, as well as by win percentage among sires with 500 or more synthetic surface starts.

The 21-year-old son of Mr. Prospector stands at Lane’s End in Versailles, Ky. His most prominent runners on synthetics include champion Lookin At Lucky, Grade 1 winners Furthest Land and Square Eddie, Grade 2 winners Papa Clem and Striking Dancer, and Grade 3 winners Air Support, Strike Softly, Smart Surprise, and Smart Sting.

Smart Strike’s success has been universal, regardless of surface, as he is North America’s leading sire by earnings on all surfaces since 2006, and the second-leading sire of earners on turf in that time frame.

“He’s a sire that I think is widely recognized as one that gets both dirt and turf runners, so the fact that his offspring would act on a third surface isn’t that surprising,” said Bill Farish of Lane’s End. “He’s just a very versatile sire in general, and when you offer up that third surface, they run well on that as well.”

Another stallion that has shown across-the-board success is Tiznow, who is the only sire other than Smart Strike to be in the top 20 among those with 100 or more all-weather progeny starts by wins, earnings and earnings per start. His leading synthetic winners include Canadian champion Bear Now and Grade 1 winners Well Armed, Colonel John and Tough Tiz’s Sis. Tiznow, a 16-year-old Cee’s Tizzy horse, stands at WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky.

The Mr. Prospector sire line has proven especially useful on all-weather surfaces. The legendary Claiborne stallion ranks second among sires of sires by earnings, and five of his sons also inhabit the top 20 of that list: Gone West, Seeking the Gold, Forty Niner, Carson City, and Machiavellian. An additional two from his male line, Unbridled and his son Unbridled’s Song, are also on that list, giving Mr. Prospector and his sire line eight of the top 20 synthetic sires of sires of all time.

Mr. Prospector continues to have a strong presence in synthetic racing, with the prominence of sons such as Smart Strike and Not For Love, as well as leading synthetic sires from the male line that includes Candy Ride, Distorted Humor, Lemon Drop Kid, Speightstown, Trajectory, and Broken Vow. The top three sires by synthetic average earnings per start also come from the Mr. Prospector line: Street Cry, Kingmambo, and Empire Maker, respectively.

“That’s not that surprising, because they’re just so talented in general,” Farish said about the Mr. Prospector line. “He’s always gotten horses that not only sprinted, but were good milers and beyond. It’s just such a solid sire line. The interesting thing about that is it does tend to have more of a dirt bent, whereas the Northern Dancer line would be more turf-oriented.”

One of the biggest factors shaping the list of leading synthetic sires is the location of the racetracks that have installed artificial surfaces.

Because the cost to install and maintain an all-weather surface runs into the millions, its expansion has largely been limited to tracks that are either on major circuits or otherwise have significant financial backing.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at Woodbine. The Ontario racetrack operates by far the longest meet of any track hosting synthetic racing, with a meet of eight months that runs from early spring to December. While the track’s signature races are run on turf, Woodbine still provides almost year-round opportunities to race on the main Polytrack surface.

The overall figures of racing on synthetic surfaces clearly show the abundance of such racing in Ontario, as perennial province-leader Bold Executive sits comfortably in first as the top North American sire by starts on synthetic surfaces, wins and progeny earnings.

The 3,104 synthetic starts by Bold Executive’s progeny give the deceased son of Bold Ruckus nearly double the amount of the second-most prolific sire, former Ontario resident Trajectory, whose foals have raced 1,858 times on artificial surfaces. Bold Executive’s synthetic earnings of more than $17 million also puts him $6 million ahead of second-place Street Cry.

Those figures are due in large part to Ontario’s lucrative, but currently jeopardized, province-bred program that has been fueled by supplements from casino gaming.

“He’s an Ontario sire, so there is a lot of racing which is limited to Ontario sires, and up until four or five years ago, if you ran an Ontario-sired race, three-quarters of the field might have been Bold Executives,” Casse said. “The numbers are skewed for that reason, but he was a good sire.”

Woodbine’s long racing schedule also has had an impact on Smart Strike’s figures as a synthetic sire. Smart Strike, bred in Ontario by Sam-Son Farms, was frequently sent mares by Sam-Son, with the resultant progeny retained to race at Woodbine.

Another point tying together many synthetic tracks is that most of them already had well-established turf racing programs prior to installing their new surface. Five of synthetic surface tracks have turf courses that feature Grade 1 turf races and host some of the world’s most prestigious turf cards.

Because of the strong draw of turf racing at those tracks, connections may be more inclined to try horses bred for grass on the synthetic main track.

“It’s really as much running style as anything,” Farish said. “Because synthetic is more ‘sit and wait and make your run at the end’ like turf, it’s not really as speed-favoring. They favor the running styles of turf horses more.”

In that case, the tie between turf and synthetic success can sometimes prove absolutely true, as it has with Kitten’s Joy, who led Kentucky sires by winners on both surfaces in 2012. The 12-year-old El Prado horse, a champion on turf, stands at Ramsey Farm in Nicholasville, Ky.

“Usually a horse that runs good on the turf also runs pretty well on the synthetic surface,” said Ken Ramsey, who bred and raced Kitten’s Joy. “There’s a direct correlation between it. If you check [Kitten’s Joy’s] pedigree, Sadler’s Wells did the majority of his running over in Europe, and over there, it’s practically all grass, and the Roberto line is grass, and the mare on the bottom side is a Lear Fan mare. He’s got grass in his pedigree, so we felt like he would do good on synthetic surfaces.”