The Triple Crown: Can It Be Done? (Part 2)

Dirt Tracks Vs. Synthetic Surfaces

As we have seen, breeding plays a significant role in the racing world and we have looked at its implications on the Triple Crown.  Our argument was that horses are bred for speed and looks rather than stamina and distance.  However, horses are also bred to run on different types of surfaces.  If a sire or dam was a dominant turf runner, those bloodlines are usually passed down to their offspring and more than likely the young horses begin training for turf races.  With the inception of synthetic surfaces, track operators are now trying to eliminate the amount of injuries to horses by installing softer surfaces rather than traditional dirt tracks.  This in turn affects breeding and training for classic races and contributes to the Triple Crown drought.  Horses who run well on synthetics often have trouble converting to dirt and it ultimately gives fans less hope of a Triple Crown.

Synthetic surfaces offer owners and trainers a desirable means to their work as horsemen and horsewomen.  The purpose of a synthetic track is most notably to reduce the amount of injuries to horses and horse fatalities.  The surfaces eliminate the amount of damage to a horse’s legs which provides a more stable racing career.  The all weather surfaces also keep track conditions consistent in inclement weather as opposed to dirt tracks that are often listed as sloppy or muddy.  As of today, many top tracks in North America have switched over to a type of synthetic track and three host derby prep races: Golden Gate Fields, Turfway Park, and Keeneland Race Course.  Santa Anita utilized synthetic tracks from 2007-2010 until recently reverting back to a dirt track this past year.  With Turfway Park being the first of the big three to install a synthetic surface in 2005, no horse has won the prominent prep race at one of these three courses and the Kentucky Derby. 

If you look at distinguished horses over the past few years, one is able to see the influence of synthetic tracks and how certain horses run on dirt surfaces.  I’m sure there are plenty of examples, but while examining classic races, I chose to look at two recent competitors.  Hard Spun, 2nd to Street Sense in the 2007 Kentucky Derby, had a very mild three year old season leading up to the derby.  After winning the Lecomte at the Fair Grounds, Hard Spun ran 4th in the Southwest at Oaklawn.  Trainer Larry Jones felt Hard Spun didn’t agree with the footing and dirt surface and sent his colt to Turfway Park.  He scored a 3 1/4 length victory in the Lane’s End Stakes and trained up to the derby.  In the Triple Crown, he ran 2nd in the KYD, 3rd in the Preakness, and 4th in the Belmont.  In the summer and fall season, Hard Spun had a productive year winning the G.2 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway and 2nd place finishes in the Haskell and Breeders’ Cup Classic.  Overall, Hard Spun started 13 races going 7-3-1 and earning $2.6 million.  Any owner or trainer would love to have a racehorse with this resume, but two of his biggest wins were over a synthetic surface at Turfway Park. Although he ran well in the classics, he still was not able to notch an over-the-top victory proving he can win at longer distances and over both types of surfaces.

Reigning Horse of the Year Zenyatta never competed in the Triple Crown races.  She was a champion mare who predominately ran and won on synthetic surfaces.  The majority of her racing career took place in California where synthetic surfaces were mandated.  However, you can make a case that she was able to win on dirt and at longer distances.  She won the Apple Blossom in consecutive years over Oaklawn’s dirt track and lost by a head to Blame in the thrilling 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic, her only loss in 20 career starts.  Her style of running, last to first, gave her the opportunity to stretch out in the final furlongs and showed her durability as a racehorse.  Although she did begin her career later than Triple Crown nominated horses, she is living proof that a horse can be successful, in terms of wins, on both surfaces.  So why can’t this apply to the Triple Crown?

Zenyatta was more seasoned as she began her career later in life compared to derby starters. She benefited from training over synthetic surfaces.  She was also a freak of nature and could probably have won over any surface.  In terms of horses competing at 2 and 3, it is evident that horses who successfully compete on synthetic surfaces have trouble transitioning to dirt.  If you look at the Blue Grass Stakes winners from 2007-2010: Dominican, Monba, General Quarters, and Stately Victor, all four proved themselves worthy to compete for the derby crown, but all four were non-factors on derby day.  This year’s winner, Brilliant Speed, and Lexington Stakes winner Derby Kitten paid hefty prices after winning over Keeneland’s Polytrack and questions concerning synthetics to dirt will undoubtedly follow them to Kentucky and Maryland.  Synthetic racing is supposed to level the playing field.  However, to me it continues to be a mind-bending puzzle in relation to handicapping, especially leading to the Kentucky Derby.

Synthetic surfaces are good for the sport.  It re-emphasizes my belief that horses are living creatures that need to be taken care of properly.  It also re-emphasizes the fact that breeding is headed in a different direction, favoring speed over stamina and durability in terms of financial investments.  In relation to the Triple Crown, I believe if a horse is to have a legitimate chance to accomplish the daunting feat, the horse must run on dirt.  Street Sense had trouble competing on synthetic surfaces, but he proved he could win on dirt.  He won the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby on the dirt track at Churchill Downs.  Santa Anita has re-instituted a dirt track to attract horses with a fighting chance to compete for the Triple Crown.  I think it is possible for a synthetic based horse to nab the first leg of the Triple Crown, but to win all three seems improbable.  To me the answer is simple, if an owner and trainer wants to win the Triple Crown, their horse must train and run at high level on dirt surfaces for the chance to walk among the 11 Triple Crown legends.

Written by Big Brink

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