10/31/2008 11:00PM

Synthetics could boost turf sires


LEXINGTON, Ky. - European runners' success at the Breeders' Cup added weight to the conventional wisdom that turf horses adapt more easily to synthetic surfaces than dirt runners do. Did the Breeders' Cup results convince commercial breeders to consider turf-oriented sires more seriously for their 2009 matings? Many say the Breeders' Cup alone doesn't supply enough long-term evidence. But they say the growing push for tracks to convert to synthetic surfaces, which are perceived as safer for horses, could have broader implications for breeders soon.

Turf sires have long been considered less fashionable among buyers, who want quick action and see them as sources of later-maturing runners. Many commercial breeders say they don't expect that market bias to change yet.

"It's going to take a lot to trump the value of presenting a horse at the yearling sale that looks like he's going to be a 2-year-old runner," said Gary Knapp of Monticule Farm, breeder of Big Brown. "People are so focused on that. What they buy they want to be able to run as a 2-year-old.

"And you look at some of the horses who are considered to be good grass sires and assumed to be good synthetic sires - at least among the more established, older sires - they don't produce 2-year-old winners. That's Mr. Market, and Mr. Market is who you have to deal with."

Dual-purpose stallions, those shown to get quality runners on turf or dirt, already are popular because of their wide market appeal. Sires perceived to be heavily turf-oriented still might have to battle auction-ring prejudices, stallion managers acknowledge. But some point out that, as synthetic tracks become more common, breeders will only help their yearlings' marketability by breeding to more turf-oriented sires.

"I think they'll have to consider them," said Garrett O'Rourke of Juddmonte Farms, whose late stallion Chester House sired two 2008 Breeders' Cup winners: Muhannak in the Marathon and Ventura in the Filly and Mare Sprint, both on Pro-Ride.

O'Rourke said that while some horses are dirt specialists and others are turf specialists, sires like Chester House that get versatile, successful synthetic-track runners will help improve the breed.

"And it's a good equalizer for both sides of the Atlantic, too," he added. "In the past, people might not have considered a horse like him to be a commercial stallion, but suddenly they're becoming commercial. A horse that could go both ways, like Distant View, who is by Mr. Prospector, most of his mares were grass mares because people thought, 'If we breed to Distant View, we're breeding specifically to produce a yearling that will appeal to Europeans at the September sale.' I think they wouldn't think that anymore. They used to think they were breeding for 20 percent of the market, but now suddenly with a horse like that you're breeding for 75 percent of the market, because you're incorporating the Europeans and all the trainers willing to buy horses for the synthetic surfaces."

Breeder Tom Roach of Parrish Hill Farm agrees. He, for one, already is considering more turf sires, partly because of the number of tracks that already have installed synthetic racing strips, but also because he feels they add good influences to many pedigrees. And because the market still hasn't deemed many of them highly fashionable, they also can offer lower stud fees.

"Certainly it ought to be a boost for some of these horses that have foreign pedigrees," he said. "We would always have liked to breed to some of those, but we couldn't sell the yearlings. But if they keep winning $1 million and $2 million races, I think we'll be able to sell the yearlings."

For the moment, many turf-oriented sires also carry lower stud fees partly because they have been seen as less commercial. That factor might also help push breeders in their direction now, while buyers are still trying to determine which sires get the best runners over man-made ground.

Many breeders, though, say the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita wasn't a game-changer for them.

"The European horses doing so well on the synthetic surface at this year's Breeders' Cup will only have a small impact on our breeding this year," said Martha Jane Mulholland of Mulholland Springs. "So many factors have to be considered when selecting a stallion for a particular mare, such as the physical characteristics, pedigree, and the stud fee. It will be two years before next year's matings run. It is just impossible to predict that far in advance where the Breeders' Cup will be held and on what type of surface.

"Also, the synthetic surfaces are being changed and perfected all the time. Our goal is simply to breed an attractive, sound athlete that can compete on any surface."