11/03/2008 12:00AM

Telling fact from fiction


NEW YORK - It says a lot about how deeply this year's Breeders' Cup, the first ever on a synthetic racing surface, resonated with the American racing public that everyone is still talking about it, especially how poorly horses without prior synthetic track racing experience did in the Pro-Ride races at Santa Anita. It does sort of feel like these horses were out of their element, but is it true? Do the facts support this impression? Let's take a look.

Of the 86 horses who started in the eight Pro-Ride Breeders' Cup races, 21 (six in the Classic alone), or 24 percent, had never before raced on a synthetic racing surface. These first-time synthetic horses accounted for one win - Raven's Pass in the Classic - two seconds - Cocoa Beach in the Ladies' Classic and Henrythenaviga-tor in the Classic - and three thirds - Zaftig in the Filly and Mare Sprint, Sky Diva in the Juvenile Fillies, and Music Note in the Ladies' Classic. These horses accounted for six of the possible 24 one-two-three finishes in the eight Pro-Ride BC races for a success rate of 25 percent. So it can be argued that even without consideration to the relative chances of victory of the horses who populated this group - this group did include two favorites, Sixties Icon in the Marathon and Curlin in the Classic, but they both finished worse than third - these first-time synthetic horses at least statistically performed up to expectations.

Now, I will happily concede that I am no statistician, and am fully aware that statistics can often be easily manipulated to make any case you want. I'm just trying to get as objective an answer as possible to the question at hand. Some will argue that I'm wrong including turf horses who were making their first starts on synthetic tracks into the sample because turf horses seem to take to synthetic surfaces better than dirt horses do.

I agree with that concept, but the simple fact is, these turf horses were making their first starts on a synthetic surface, so in a technical sense they should be included. Beyond that, just being a turf horse doesn't automatically guarantee a successful transition to Pro-Ride, or any other synthetic surface. Just ask Sixties Icon, Lord Admiral in the Dirt Mile, Bushranger, who was third choice in the betting in the Juvenile, and Duke of Marmalade, the third choice in the Classic. The best finish any of these turf-to-synthetic horses could muster was a fifth.

Let's flip the question around. If horses who had no prior experience on synthetic surfaces were perceived to have done poorly in these Pro-Ride BC races, then it should follow that horses who had prior experience and success on synthetic surfaces must have done well. Well, they did. The first three finishers in the eight BC Pro-Ride races previously made a total of 101 career starts on synthetic surfaces and had won 51 of them for a robust success rate of 50 percent. But that's not all there is to this.

If you compiled the same information on the last three finishers in these eight races, you would expect decidedly weaker results since, by definition, the last three finishers in a race would generally be markedly inferior to the first three finishers. Instead, the last three finishers in these races made 102 prior starts on synthetic and won 43 of them for a robust strike rate of 42 percent.

What all of this tells us is that in this Breeders' Cup, past success on synthetic surfaces was no guarantee of success, just as a lack of prior experience with synthetic surfaces was not a death sentence. Just because Curlin was beaten in the Classic - a loss that is just as easily attributable to a decline in form as the footing - it shouldn't lead one to jump to the conclusion that all first- time synthetic horses stunk the joint out, because even beyond Raven's Pass, they didn't. Cocoa Beach and Music Note had the misfortune of running into a monster like Zenyatta. Sky Diva, beyond running into a top horse in Stardom Bound, was also compromised by being closer to a fast pace than she had to be.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is to be skeptical of blanket assumptions that are quick to surface after events like this because there are so many other factors in play. Everyone got so caught up in the whole synthetic shebang that few even considered, for example, how much of a factor the general record of futility New York horses have in California Breeders' Cups (save occasional exceptions, like the 1997 Cup at Hollywood) might have been.

And while we're at it, let's tackle another blanket assumption that has surfaced in the wake of this Breeders' Cup. There has been much hand-wringing amongst American racing fans who worry that European horses winning five of the nine BC races on the Saturday card signals some sort of sea change in terms of global dominance of Thoroughbred racing. Maybe this is indeed the case, but before anyone gets too far ahead of themselves, I ask: Didn't the Marathon that Muhannak won turn out to be nothing more than a glorified classified allowance race? Wasn't Goldikova supposed to win the Mile? Considering that turf racing is not our country's primary focus, wasn't the 2-year-old turf race Donativum won supposed to be the property of Europeans? Didn't we know for months that our male turf division this year, the one Conduit victimized in the Turf, was unusually weak? If for whatever reason Curlin didn't run his race in the Classic, didn't we know that none of the remaining American horses was really top class?

If you answered "yes" to the above like I did, then maybe the seeming European takeover of our game had as much to do with circumstances cyclical in nature than anything else.