04/22/2007 12:00AM

Yin without yang equals chaos


NEW YORK - The announcement Thursday that the 2008 Breeders' Cup will be run at Santa Anita over a synthetic track, coming just five days after a bizarre running of the Blue Grass Stakes on Polytrack at Keeneland, had to leave many a horseman and horseplayer wondering: Will racing's championship races will be as peculiar and perplexing as this season's final major Derby prep?

If so, racing as we know it will have changed so radically as to become virtually unrecognizable. It is very unlikely, however, that any of the 2008 Breeders' Cup races will look anything like the 2007 Blue Grass. The kind of racing going on at Keeneland these days is not a necessary outcome of synthetic surfaces in general or even Polytrack in particular. It is an unwelcome aberration that Keeneland needs to address if it wants to retain its slogan of "Racing as it was meant to be" while keeping a straight face.

There have been hundreds of nine-furlong Derby preps in the modern era, but never one run in the style or fractions of last week's Blue Grass. Dominican loped his first six furlongs in a glacial 1:17.35, then flew home his last three furlongs in 33.98 seconds to win a four-way photo. Teuflesberg, who "set" the pace of 1:16.65, was visibly tired and weaving down the stretch but still managed to come home in a blistering 34.73.

Compare Dominican's early and late fractions with those of the winners in the five other Grade 1 or Grade 2 nine-furlong Derby preps this year - the Lane's End at Turfway (Hard Spun), Florida Derby at Gulfstream (Scat Daddy), Wood Memorial at Aqueduct (Nobiz Like Shobiz), Santa Anita Derby (Tiago), and Arkansas Derby(Curlin):

Hard Spun1:11.66 + 37.75 = 1:49.41

Scat Daddy1:10.99 + 38.01 = 1:49.00

Nobiz Like Shobiz 1:10.90 + 38.56 = 1:49.46

Tiago1:12.72 + 36.79 = 1:49.51

Curlin1:12.89 + 37.20 = 1:50.09

Dominican1:17.35 + 33.98 = 1:51.33

No wonder Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Blue Grass runner-up Street Sense, told Daily Racing Form's Jay Privman that this Blue Grass has "got to go down as the stupidest Grade 1 race ever."

It's tempting to think that the three-eighths marker at Keeneland is in the wrong post-hole, but the track and independent handicappers have verified the measurements. Some people might presume this Blue Grass was simply run over a slow track, but it's the same surface on which Silent Name won the seven-furlong Commonwealth in a zippy 1:21.26 the same afternoon, and over which 2-year-olds have been setting world records in presale breezes and baby races.

Keeneland's stretch has been turned into the equivalent of a paved highway to produce such clockings, but this is not just a matter of a difference in quickness between the two sides of the oval. After seeing that only two front-runners held on to win in the first 66 route races run on Keeneland's Polytrack last fall and this spring, jockeys are understandable terrified of going to the front and routinely restrain their horses through absurdly slow early fractions.

The one thing we've learned beyond a doubt about the new synthetic surfaces is that they are as malleable, at the hands of both man and nature, as dirt tracks ever have been. You can't say that Polytrack is producing these clockings - it's whatever Keeneland is doing to its version of Polytrack. The Lane's End was run over Turfway's Polytrack and was completely within the normal parameters and pace dynamics of American racing. So was most of the racing last year on Hollywood's synthetic Cushion Track and Woodbine's version of Polytrack.

Blinkered cheerleaders for Keeneland think the style of racing on display in the Blue Grass is a positive development that makes the game livelier and may somehow herald a welcome return to stamina over speed in the sport. This is nonsense. Essentially walking horses up to the head of the stretch and then turning them loose for three furlongs reduces Thoroughbred races to Quarter Horse dashes. This Blue Grass told us absolutely nothing about anyone's classic potential or ability to sustain a reasonable rate of speed over a meaningful distance of ground.

Early speed and late speed are the yin and yang of racing, with the balance between them determining the outcome of races and defining the true abilities of our very best horses. Without any yin, though, the yang becomes meaningless in isolation.

Keeneland is an exemplary outfit and in recent years has been a truly innovative leader in the sport, taking extraordinary steps on behalf of horses, horsemen, and the customers. Something, however, has gone terribly wrong with its racing surface that needs to be corrected.