Let's say it was a week before the Derby, and the esteemed connections of a well-bred and successful steed in Europe announced they were coming over. To date, all the horse's races were on the grass, and he had a good amount of success: wins in half his starts, in the money finishes in the rest. However, he had never left the British Isles, never run on dirt (despite being bred for it), and none of his serious competitors were coming over for the race. What kind of odds would you get on this horse in a year where the competition was so-so at best? Probably somewhere between 10-1 and 20-1, and he'd be regarded as an intriguing oddity at best.
Sound far-fetched and irrelevant? Hardly. Ladies and gentlemen, let me formally introduce you to the world of racing on synthetic surfaces and the probable second choice in the Derby, Colonel John.
Mostly seen prior to 2004 at training tracks and in Europe, synthetic surfaces are replacements for dirt tracks where instead of using conventional dirt/sand combinations as the racing surface, the dirt is replaced by polymers and other odd chemical compounds that create a faux-dirt material to run on. These tracks, which have several forms and names (Polytrack, Cushion Track, Tapeta Track) have some clear advantages over dirt for tracks. They don't hold water like dirt tracks, meaning you always have a "fast" surface and never a mud soup. They don't freeze, which is key for tracks with winter racing. And allegedly (though not definitely), they're easier on horses joints, meaning that it's less likely that there will be breakdowns on the track and that horses will start more frequently. (Or so tracks were told--the data to date has been fairly inconclusive.)
The movement towards synthetic surfaces began about 3-4 years ago, when a few minor tracks decided to adopt it, and were followed by Keeneland, who runs an elite boutique meet every April and October, both in the interest of horse safety. Then, in the wake of the injury to America's Horse, Barbaro, in 2006 California took the amazingly over-aggressive step of mandating that all tracks convert their dirt surfaces to synthetics within a year. Their rationale was simple: it's dirt but safer! Horses will live longer! What was wrong with that?
Here's the catch: it's not remotely the same as dirt. Time after time, race after race, we've seen horses that do well dirt flop on synthetics, and vice versa. Instead, a goofy trend has emerged: horses that do well on grass have proven to do well on synthetics. Additionally, synthetic tracks have turned American breeding on its head: whereas dirt tracks generally favor early speed and thus breeders will breed with an eye towards speed from the gate, front runners flop on synthetics, as the tracks are too tiring in nature. This became so apparent in California that stalwart Bob Baffert took all of his young horses out of Del Mar last summer and shipped them to Saratoga, which has a conventional dirt track.
We had our first look at racing in a synthetic world last year, as the 2007 Blue Grass, Keeneland's Derby prep, was run on Polytrack. The result was a bizarrely run race where the horses did nothing for the first 2/3 of the race, and sprinted to the finish line with four horses finishing in a blanket finish. One was Street Sense, the Derby winner 3 weeks later. The other 3 horses, Zanjero, Teufelsberg and Dominican, could only be found in the Derby if you brought a telescope. Essentially, the race was a total toss-out and a paid workout for the quartet, and you had to handicap the Derby by basically ignoring the last race.
Fast forward a year later, and we've got synthetic tracks wreaking further havoc with the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Firstly, we had another Blue Grass Stakes last Saturday, which was won by Monba over Cowboy Cal, and where the favorites, Pyro, Visionaire, Cool Coal Man and Big Truck did next to nothing. This creates the quandary of figuring out how to evaluate those that ran well (especially Cowboy Cal, whose other wins came on turf), and what to do with the losers, as it would buck history to run 10th in your race before the Derby then win the damn thing.
Second and more problematically, we've got horses that have run only over synthetic surfaces to date, the most notable being Colonel John, whose Santa Anita Derby win was very impressive, but once again, not on a dirt surface. Colonel John's record to date is pretty impressive, and his breeding is a pure thumbs-up on getting the Derby distance. But all he's proven to date is that he's a monster on fake dirt. What the hell is he going to do on real dirt?
I refuse to go the route of Cranky Plagiarist Andy Beyer and call it impossible or unfair to handicap the Derby. But the omnipresence of these synthetic surfaces is adding a new wrinkle that's making the Derby puzzle even more challenging and a lot less fun in the process. (The flip side, of course, is that everyone is more confused, meaning if you're right, you'll make more money as a result.) It remains to be seen if there are any benefits of synthetic surfaces, but we've definitely found a downside: racing now has a 3rd surface, much like tennis, which is difficult to equate to anything else, and makes evaluating developing horses even trickier.
Coming up in the next few weeks: another look at what it takes to win the Derby, and then our annual countdown from worst to first.