Commentary

The dirt on artificial surfaces

Updated: August 25, 2008, 7:17 PM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

Just as soon as we get horse racing figured out, along comes fake dirt.

Fake fields are nothing new, look at football, baseball, miniature golf. But no manufactured product short of pharmaceuticals has made a sport more confusing.

With the next two Breeders' Cup championships scheduled for the Make-Believe Capital of the World, LA, where so many people appear to have rubber-like surfaces themselves, it's never too early to focus on handicapping the races at sites where the rubber meets the hoof.

If you think that looking at the form of horses racing over the relatively new surface is puzzling, try discussing the activity in public. The following expert analysis comes from several recent radio interviews I've done on the subject of such things as who's off first.

Interviewer's question: On the subject of the manufactured racing surfaces, what has been the overall influence on winning racing styles?

My answer: Don't know.

Question: Why does most speed stop cold in the stretch, and why do deep closers make up ground, but only to place or to show?

Answer: Don't know.

Q: Is it true that running on fake dirt is the same as running on extremely deep turf courses?

A: Don't know.

Q: How much safer is the new racing surface?

A: Don't know.

Q: Is speed the most important artificial surface racing skill?

A: Don't know.

Q: Is there a rail bias?

A: Don't know.

Q: Is breathing artificial materials harmful?

A: Don't know.

Q: Well, what do you know?

A: It's something like the Green Monster in left field at Fenway, or like December temperatures at Lambeau. An artificial racing surface encourages specific talents.

Q: Which are?

A: Competitive speed and a tactically pleasing stalking running style. The most infrequently seen events on pseudo-turf are speed loose on the front end winning, and horses closing last to first for the victory.

Q: So in most races, you're suggesting that something like 80 percent of the horses could actually win.

A: More like 85 percent.

Q: Will more tracks go to the artificial surface?

A: As rain drainage is not a big issue in So-Cal, it will probably depend on health issues. The first synthetic track I can remember was in the nineties at Remington Park in Oklahoma City.

Q: What happened?

A: Breathing in what had been spread might have been a problem.

Q: And?

A: They dug it up and put back dirt.

Q: What about the heath issues?

A: It's probably too early to read much into breakdown figures. Santa Anita has already adjusted its artificial surface, using an Australian company called Pro-Ride for a polymeric binder. A few months ago, a trainer sent me an email with numbers that seemed to indicate injury figures were similar in number so far in this country, comparing artificial to dirt. But perhaps injuries will turn up to be different in nature. It would stand to reason that the injuries, or stresses or strains, might be of a new angle, given an adjustment in racing styles. Juicing the turf, not the horse, is obviously popular with somebody ready to protest.

Q: Why is it said to be like racing on a turf course?

A: Probably because one middle move seems to win a lot of races. But the results of the rubber matches seem even more radical than that a turf comparison, it's more like an influence mud has. It's radical, more than an edge, it's a knack.

Q: Anything else you've noticed that could help handicappers new to the surface?

A: The shortest favorites seem blessed. Deep closers can't get by all the stalkers.

Q: How will you prepare for the Breeders' Cup races?

A: Try to win enough before.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.