Handicapping has changed since the inception of All-Weather Tracks became regular over the last 5 years. What’s also changing and increasing is the amount of Kentucky Derby contenders that have raced on the surface prior to the first Saturday in May. Often referred to as Polytrack, Cushion Track or Synthetics, the main reason it is more frequent is due to the amount of tracks on the Derby Trail that opted to replace the dirt. While that is the common dominator another contributing dynamic is how confident our trainers are these days with introducing their horses to it. The further a trainer goes to establish comfort levels with their colts on anything from Turf, to Poly and to Dirt, the more Kentucky Derby Contenders we’re going to see that have raced on all of them.
A few years ago it was very easy to disregard a Kentucky Derby entry that didn’t have a lot of experience on dirt. But after last year that is something that will need to be considered very carefully before doing it again. Animal Kingdom became the first Kentucky Derby winner to have never raced on dirt. For me personally I had to learn the hard way that racing is racing regardless of the surface. I was too quick to discount Animal Kingdom’s profile leading up to the Kentucky Derby and all of that was based solely on the fact that he had yet to race on dirt. Trends in sports and definitely the Kentucky Derby are only good to bet on when a trend is still trending but if you go with it and fail is when you’re going to wish you looked a little closer.
So now I’m noticing how many horses are running and winning on both surfaces. In the history of the Kentucky Derby only 2 horses that have ever won on Synthetics prior to the Kentucky Derby eventually wound up wearing the roses – Animal Kingdom 2011 and Mine That Bird 2009. The number is low but with the influx of it becoming more common it is guaranteed to increase in the years ahead, possibly as soon as this year. 2012 presents such a strong case because in the expected field of 20 are 12 horses that have already won on Polytrack. Keep in mind that of the 20 there isn’t a single entry that raced on an All-Weather Track and didn’t win.
Probable Entry – Race(s) Won – Synthetic Track Location
- Creative Cause – MSW at Hollywood and G2 Best Pal at Del Mar
- Hansen – MSW and Kentucky Cup Juvenile at Turfway Park
- Dullahan – G1 Blue Grass Stakes and G1 Breeeders’ Futurity at Keeneland
- Take Charge Indy – MSW at Arlington Park
- Daddy Nose Best – G3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields
- Gemologist – MSW at Turfway Park
- I’ll Have Another – MSW at Hollywood
- Liaison – MSW and G1 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood
- Went the Day Well – G3 Spiral at Turfway Park
- Prospective – MSW and Grey Stakes at Woodbine
- Rousing Sermon – MSW at Hollywood
- Daddy Long Legs – UAE Derby at Meydan
* There won’t be another Animal Kingdom – all probable entries have raced on dirt at least once
Just because these 12 have raced and won on Polytrack doesn’t mean they are tied to it and haven’t converted to dirt in preparation for the Kentucky Derby. A perfect example of this strategic move is all of the California colts that raced as 2-yr-olds; Creative Cause, I’ll Have Another, Rousing Sermon and Liaison. Since all of the major California tracks are All- Weather, except Santa Anita, California trainers have no choice but to get their horses comfortable with racing on both. In the summer of a two-year old season out west you are generally limited to Del Mar and Hollywood Park, the only big live racing meets. However, even though this is where they began they haven’t gone back to poly since they began racing at Santa Anita .
Only 2 other horses fit this profile. Gemologist, the undefeated colt, began his racing career with a Maiden victory at Turfway Park but has remained on dirt since the race that followed. Take Charge Indy also began his career with a win his first time out at Arlington Park. He stayed on the synthetics his next two races in preparation for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile but since he stepped out on the dirt at Churchill Downs he has yet to go back. What that means for the other 6 is that they have raced on synthetics more recently.
This brings up another very interesting handicapping quarrel. For the horse racing enthusiast that are still anti-poly, if they are to wager on a poly tested horse it will likely be a contender that has officially converted to dirt for the 3-yr-old preps. Where they might have a hard time is any horse that still goes back and forth between the two in the months leading up to the Derby. Or in the case of the entries that raced in the Blue Grass Stakes, it would mean a horse that went back poly in the past two weeks.
Street Sense still remains the only horse that ever raced on Keeneland’s All-Weather Track in the Blue Grass Stakes before coming back to win the Kentucky Derby. Because he didn’t win he is the only one that accompanies Animal Kingdom and Mine That Bird in the category of Kentucky Derby winners that at least raced on a synthetic track. But because that route hasn’t been good to anyone else there are some that may have a hard time committing to Hansen, Dullahan or Prospective. The counter is that both Hansen and Dullahan ran at Keeneland before entering the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile where they finished 1st and 4th respectively. So if they can convert like that again they could be able to make a bid.
Of our 12 All-Weather tested horses Dullahan, Daddy Nose Best and Daddy Long Legs represent the surface trifecta. Each of them has raced on Turf, Dirt and All-Weather at least once. However, Daddy Nose Best separates himself from the other 2 because his last race was on the dirt at Sunland Park. But he’s an interesting horse because prior to this year he raced mostly on turf. As for Dullahan and Daddy Long Legs both of them return to the dirt for the first time since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November.
That can be hard to stomach for some of our bettors in the 138th Kentucky Derby but it might be time to realize what I learned last year. My recommendation is that racing is racing and to throw the surface out. I won’t try to convince anyone that is still loyal to the horses that only race on dirt but I will support the trainers that have elected to include the poly on their way to the Kentucky Derby. With a host of major tracks making the switch it’s hard not to take advantage of the races that present the best chance at increasing your graded stakes earnings. Take what’s there and hopefully there will more to come on derby day.
Written by: Little Brink