Kentucky Derby Handicapping: Synthetic Surfaces
by Trevor Whenham - 04/09/2009
If you haven't already heard a lot of talk about synthetic tracks and their impact on the Kentucky Derby then you certainly will between now and the first Saturday in May. No topic in horse racing now is more controversial, and nothing has created more headaches for handicappers trying to pick a winner in a race that was already almost impossible to handicap. So what's all the fuss about?
The Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont are all run on dirt tracks. Up until the last few years, every race in North America was either run on dirt or turf. Recently, though, several tracks have put in synthetic surfaces. The biggest reason for the tracks is to limit serious and fatal injuries to horses running on the tracks. Unfortunately, it's far from conclusive that the synthetic surfaces actually are safer than dirt, and they have created several problems along the way. All of the tracks in California are legally required to have a synthetic surface, and other tracks have chosen to install one as well - most notably Keeneland, Woodbine, and Arlington.
People refer to synthetic tracks as if they are all the same, but they are all slightly different depending upon the manufacturer. Essentially, they replace the dirt with some sort of compound usually derived of a combination of rubber, wax and other elements. Besides supposedly being safer they also should require less maintenance than dirt, and they are supposed to provide a more consistent racing surface. There have been problems with installing the tracks in North America, though, because of climate differences between here and England and Australia where the tracks have been developed and are more common. Keeneland and Woodbine have both had troubles with the way the tracks handle cold weather. Santa Anita had so much trouble with their original track that they tore it out and replaced it with a different brand. Del Mar's track was originally so slow that it made a mockery of their signature races in the first year.
So why are the tracks such a big issue in Kentucky Derby handicapping? Simply put, dirt isn't anything like synthetic. The synthetic surfaces share more similarities to turf than dirt in terms of the way horses feel when they run on them, and the styles of runners that succeed on them. A horse that is outstanding on a synthetic track may be equally good on a dirt track, or he might not be nearly as good. Some horses can make the transition seamlessly, while others struggle mightily, and there is really no way to know for sure which horse is which until you see them on dirt. It's like tennis - Roger Federer is unbeatable on grass because the surface perfectly complements his style, but he is far less effective on clay.
Last year's Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita was the first to be run on a synthetic surface, and it unquestionably had a big impact on the results. Generally, horses that had not seen synthetics before didn't do as well as they would have been expected to. Most striking was the great Curlin, the Breeders' Cup Classic favorite, who was just a shadow of himself on the new surface.
Besides how the surfaces respond under the horses, a big factor is kickback. When a synthetic surface is working properly then there is little kickback - dirt flying back from one horses feet into the face of a horse behind them. On dirt that is a big factor if the track is reasonably dry. Horses that have a stalking or closing style but have never run on dirt before won't be familiar with kickback. Some horses don't mind it at all, while others react very poorly.
Synthetics are going to be a major factor this year because several key horses will have done their best work on synthetic surfaces. The top two California contenders - Pioneerof The Nile and Chocolate Candy - have both only ever run on a synthetic surface. That means that handicappers will not only have to determine how they measure up with horses they have never seen, but also how they will adjust to dirt. The winner of the Blue Grass Stakes, a major Derby prep at Keeneland, will also have run their biggest pre-Derby race on a synthetic surface. In the two years that that race has been run on a synthetic surface we have seen that good form in that race has not translated at all to good Derby form.
The surfaces force handicappers to make an educated guess, and that makes people uncomfortable. I Want Revenge, likely to be one of the Derby favorites, has gone from being a decent horse on the synthetics in California to an absolute beast on dirt. On the other hand, Colonel John, the Santa Anita Derby winner last year, did not handle his first run over dirt in the Kentucky Derby very well at all. To further complicate things, he rebounded nicely to win the Travers Stakes over dirt later in the summer. In a race that already has so many unique factors for handicappers to figure out - horses have to run farther than they ever have in the biggest field they will ever face in front of the biggest crowd they will ever see against the best of the best horses in the country - this is just one more headache.
Chances are pretty good that a serious horse racing fan will have a strong opinion about the surface. I personally detest everything about them. I think that they were adopted based on some shoddy science and false assumptions. There's that saying - "guns don't kill people, people kill people with guns". I see that as the same thing with dirt tracks. Dirt tracks aren't the reason that horses break down. Bad training or irresponsible breeding or bad riding are why horses break down, and the dirt surfaces are just a convenient scapegoat. Synthetic surfaces provide an excuse without addressing the underlying issues of the sport, and they severely impact the tradition and purity of the sport at the same time. If I honestly and truly believed that the surfaces were much safer for horses then I would be fully in favor of them, but that hasn't yet been shown, and the problems and issues they have created have far outweighed any gains that they have realized. I'm especially annoyed this year because I very much like the two top California horses, but I won't know until the races have started whether they will be able to race to their potential.