Breeders' Cup Handicapping: Ignore the New Surface
by Trevor Whenham - 10/23/2008
One of the biggest stories heading into the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita this year is the surface the majority of the races will be run on. This is the first time in the 25-year history of racing's biggest day that the main track events have been held on a synthetic surface instead of on dirt. Santa Anita has a Pro-Ride surface, a substance developed in Australia. To further complicate things, this track is very new, so we don't know how it will react, or how horses react to it. Santa Anita initially installed a Cushion Track surface in 2007, but there were issues with the consistency of the track and its drainage ability. The bold decision was made to replace it this summer, so the current Oak Tree meet, which only began in September, is the first chance we have had to see the new surface in action.
The synthetic surface adds a new layer of complexity for handicappers. Though there are several synthetic tracks in North America, this is the first one to use this specific material. Further, only a very small handful of horses that will run in the Cup have run a race on the Santa Anita track since it has been re-opened, so there is virtually no first hand experience to draw on and learn from. This won't be easy. As the races draw nearer, and handicapping efforts intensify, here's a collection of some of the thoughts that are governing my approach to this surface:
1. The Pro-Ride surface - The surface is largely unproven, but we do know a few things about it. For one, it's among the more consistent synthetics surfaces. The polymers it uses don't change significantly when exposed to changes in temperature, so it is basically the same at 90 degrees as it is at 30. That can't be said for Polytrack and the others. It also has less of a kickback problem than some of the synthetics. One of the problems that some horses face with the synthetic surface is the discomfort of the material that is kicked back by the horses in front of them. This is far less of an issue on this surface. Pro-Ride also seems to be the synthetic that most closely resembles dirt. The sample sizes are small, but we haven't seen the bizarre changes in performance between dirt and synthetic that we have at other places. When Del Mar put in its Polytrack surface the track was ridiculously slow.
2. The tendencies so far - Though we have seen just about a month of racing, a few clear trends of the track have emerged. So far, the place to be on the track seems to be just off the lead. Those close stalkers who keep in touch with the lead have won a far larger portion of the races than would be expected. We've also learned that it's very easy for a horse to be used up too early. The horses that succeed are generally those that seems to hold off their charge until the last turn or later. That's a bit later than we would otherwise expect.
3. Largely ignoring those tendencies - I suppose that I might live to regret this, but I firmly believe that the best way to handicap this card is to largely ignore the surface. We may have emerging trends developing, but that doesn't necessarily mean much when applied to the two days of BC races. Unlike the races that established these trends, these races feature the best horses in the world running in races that, for the most part, they have been specifically aimed at for months. The horses are likely at the distances they are best suited for, and they have been trained to be ready for the surface as well as they can be. It only makes sense, then, that class and form are more important than the surface. Also, the horses that are running in these races are used to traveling across the continent and, often, around the world, to race. Each track is different, and the best horses are used to compensating for that.
That's not to say that every horse will handle the surface well. It's just that we have no clear way to know which horses will succeed or fail. The risk is that we can oversimplify and rule out horses that shouldn't be ruled out. Curlin is a prime example. He has never run on a synthetic surface, and his connections weren't keen on doing it now. That could lead people to say he won't win. That may be the case, but of more interest to me is that he has beaten the best horses in the world over the last two years here and in Dubai. Given all that he has accomplished it seems ridiculous to assume that he can't run on the synthetic surface just because he never has.
Another risk of relying too heavily on these tendencies is the lack of certainty. We have learned that more races have been won just off the lead than anywhere else, but that doesn't mean that they haven't been won from elsewhere. Front runners have won, and so have closers. They may not happen as often, but they still happen. Even with the long-term trend established, it is statistically possible, though not probable, that no stalker could win on the day. Relying on the trends could force you to neglect a horse like Zenyatta in the Ladies' Classic because she is a deep closer. Most people would say that ruling out an unbeaten superstar who is based in California and loves synthetic surfaces is a terrible idea regardless of her running style.