Commentary

Digging below the Breeders' Cup surface

Updated: October 29, 2008, 6:26 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

There are two glaring holes with the argument that the Europeans had a decided advantage against the Americans simply because of the all-weather track at the 2008 Breeders' Cup.

One, the Euros also jerked a knot in the Yanks on the turf.

Two, this is the first steroid-free Breeders' Cup in history; and more importantly than the single, headline-grabbing drug banishment, it was easily the most heavily tested and medicinally scrutinized racing event ever held in America. Out-of-competition, random drug tests made their debuts, and likely made quite an impact on the do-bad temptations of many horsemen.

So was it the surface below the animals, or the lack of substances below the surface of the animals themselves, that had more to do with the final outcome?

To this question, conjecture reigns over any concrete answers.

American racing's fancy-free drug culture took two sucker-punches to the solarplexes this year after the Triple Crown controversies of Big Brown and Eight Belles. Whether steroids, or any other drugs for that matter, had anything to do with their immaculate on-track performances simply does not matter anymore. The post-script to Eight Belles and Big Brown is that every horse coming down the pike after them had better be on the up-and-up.

For decades, the prevailing skepticism has been that American horses are on rocket fuel, while the Europeans get their fuel from hay, oats and water. While it's na´ve to think that's completely true, the discrepancies between European training and American training are like comparing a Hollywood personal trainer to a couple of fat guys in tank tops throwing the medicine ball around the gym.

Compare: In Europe, horses train with long, pastoral gallops up-and-down lush greens and woodchips in their own "yards," covering miles at a time with a 150-pound lad aboard; in America, they'll get 20 minutes daily out of the stall at a hard-packed dirt racetrack, traveling once around the oval in a two-minute "lick," then maybe a five-eighths breeze in a minute-flat every 7-10 days with a 112-pound exercise rider.

Calling a spade a spade, it's hard to imagine a scenario where the American racehorse could possibly be superior to the European racehorse. I'm not talking individually, of course, as a great runner can come from anywhere. But, big-picture, let's be honest: we're far behind the curve.

The only great equalizer over the years has been our domestic dirt surfaces that play like brown-painted asphalt, imploring speed to shine and laughing at anything to do with pedigree, endurance and class. Toss in a few syringes of your favorite veterinarian's cocktails, and suddenly "our" horses had found a way to overcome the hundreds of years of superiority and training methodology of "their" horses.

Speaking of vets and practices, don't get me wrong  I wholeheartedly think there are dozens of drugs proliferating the game that are far worse than steroids. But if you're still from the camp that believes steroids have no performance-enhancing value, then you probably didn't follow the 2008 Del Mar meeting.

There, trainer John Sadler openly thumbed his nose at steroid testing, choosing to take the money and run while the program was offering mere "warnings" and strikes on the permanent record of a trainer whose horses tested positive. Sadler himself accounted for 18 of the 38 positives at the entire meeting, it has been widely reported. To no surprise, not only did Sadler blow away all other trainers in positive steroid tests, he also ran away as the clear-cut, top trainer in the standings by wins.

In fairness, Sadler did follow suit by winning the recently concluded Oak Tree meeting's leading trainer title, but few would mistake his 12-for-71 mark at Oak Tree for his 30-for-111 Del Mar stand. He was 55-for-111 in the exacta at Del Mar, folks. That plummeted to 19-for-71 at Oak Tree, from 50 percent to just over 26 percent.

At the Breeders' Cup, Sadler's Zappa beat just one horse in the Marathon as the 3-to-1 second choice; Dearest Trickski finished 11th in the Filly & Mare Sprint as the 11-to-1 fifth choice in the betting; Get Funky finished ninth in the Turf Sprint as the 9-to-2 second choice and morning line favorite; Evita Argentina, sixth choice in the betting, ran 9th at 19-to-1 in the Juvenile Fillies; Emmy Darling ran fifth in the Juvenile Fillies Turf as a major 24-to-1 longshot; and Whatsthescript finished third in the Mile as the 4-to-1 third wagering choice. Meanwhile, Cost of Freedom, one of the favorites in the Sprint, was a controversial scratch on raceday after failing to pass his veterinary inspection, though Sadler commented publicly that he and his private veterinarian found no flaw with the horse.

This is not to pick on John Sadler and make him the poster boy of America's infatuation with steroids. Many, many trainers have used them, and likely some will continue to try and use them while cutting around the system. But he also invited the skepticism when he chose to continue steroid use when most others in California had the sense to stop and keep their permanent records as clean as they could.

Drugs aside and just applying commonsense, If European racehorses are so thoroughly dominant over American horses on turf, as we all admit that they are, it bears to reason that they would be on most any surface. Pace certainly plays a factor, too. When the Classic throws up a half-mile on the teletimer approaching 48 seconds, you invite the European grass horses to the stretch-running party. Canter and explode is their mantra, not ours. We saw the same thing in the Marathon. It's hard to argue that the defections of horses like Commentator, Big Brown, Mast Track and Well Armed turned the Classic into a carousel. In that scenario, anyone with Daily Racing Form newsprint on their fingertips understands that it's a Euro set-up.

Back in the stone ages, when there were only eight divisions worthy of Breeders' Cup inclusion, the Europeans swept all three turf races at Santa Anita, registering a 3-for-8 mark in 2003. That was a 38-percent win ratio. Ironically, or maybe not so ironically, the Euros won 5-of-14 races this time around in Arcadia. The percentage  36.

Three of the Europeans' five wins came on the turf last Saturday, while Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator's one-two Classic finish over the Pro-Ride will be the headline-screamer everyone will remember. Yes, Muhannak did win the 1-1/2 miles Marathon from overseas, beating a one-time $50,000 claimer in the States, but English classic winner Sixties Icon was supposed to be the steamroller. Does his fifth-place finish speak toward a pro-Euro bias on all-weather tracks, too? What about Lord Admiral's eighth in the Dirt Mile, and Bushranger's 11th in the Juvenile? Or are we just supposed to forget the poor European efforts on Pro-Ride?

And as for the Americans who did not perform as some expected, I don't know a single handicapper who felt Curlin and Ginger Punch were as strong in the autumn as they were last year or earlier this year. Both were in declining form by any reasonable measure. Remember, Curlin still beat Go Between in the Classic, who was supposed to be the horse whose career was ultimately "made" by the creation of synthetic tracks. If there was such a bias in the surface toward all-weather horses, we would have been taking snapshots of Go Between in the winner's circle. And Curlin's sensational move on the turn was not a horse spinning his wheels. You don't loop the kind of horses he did in third gear.

Without a doubt, the surface might have had something to do with the European success in 2008, but it can't be lump-summed naively as the lone reason. Until we start seeing how American horses and their trainers react to a more stringent drug policy, the final chapter in the story of the 2008 Breeders' Cup could look decidedly different.

And, we might all someday have to swallow our pride and just admit the Europeans have superior racehorses.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.