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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Championship Confusion Nothing New

- Gary West, writing in the Dallas-Ft Worth Star Telegram, writes of the synthetic problem facing this year's Breeders' Cup, making the case that this year's (and next for that matter) Breeders' Cup World Championships cannot be considered as such.

Everyone agrees, all the coaches and all the fans, that the game played Jan. 8 in Miami will determine the national champion of college football. About the selection process leading up to the game and about the teams involved there may be, and probably will be, passionate disagreement.

But about the game itself and what it means nearly everyone agrees. And that agreement confers championship importance. In fact, championship status depends entirely on such agreement. Without it, there would be only championship confusion.

That’s precisely where horse racing finds itself, in a state of championship confusion. The sport’s championship event, the Breeders’ Cup, may not in fact determine many championships at all, simply because the races, or at least eight of them, will be run on a surface that precludes agreement about their significance.
As you know if you've been visiting this site, I've been unabashedly in favor of the synthetic track endeavor, for the almost utopian notion of the injury-, bias-, and slop-free racing it aspires to, if not for the actual and mixed results thus far. I've probably at some point accused the most virulent opponents of being whiners.

But I also have to be honest, and admit that I totally agree with what West says. I'd be most ambivalent about Go Between as Horse of the Year even if he were to thrash both Curlin and Big Brown, and anyone else who ships in for the race. The marked differences in form and preference we've seen between many of the synthetic surfaces and natural dirt was not part of the package I'd hoped for. I think that's been the biggest failure of the experiment thus far.

However, the problem of the climactic races being rendered ambiguous is not at all entirely new; just manifested in a different way in a different era. For one thing, the fact is that there have always been stark differences between the California tracks and those in the east. It was common to hear trainers hesitate to ship horses out west due to their reputation as being rock-hard, fast, and speed favoring.

In addition, and of even more significance, was the difference in medication rules before New York permitted the use of Lasix in 1995. Before that, it was the only major racing state to ban it. And since the road to the championships went through Belmont's Fall Championship meeting before the Breeders' Cup came along, the titles were almost always decided Lasix-free. That changed however in 1984, when the first Breeders' Cup was held in California. Steven Crist, reporting for the New York Times the week leading up to the inaugural event, laid out two possible scenarios:
Scenario A: The races are thrilling, competitive contests among the best horses in the world, and are won by such popular stars as Slew o' Gold and Chief's Crown. The races determine national champions and yield a horse-of- the-year titleholder. A larger audience than has ever watched racing on television tunes in for an unparalleled four hours of live network coverage. The races rekindle national interest in thoroughbred racing, and the Breeders' Cup rivals the Kentucky Derby as the racing event of the year. From now on, the rest of the racing season is a prelude to the series, and horses' entire careers are geared toward winning a Breeders' Cup race.

Scenario B: Because most of the horses will have been flown into unfamiliar surroundings and onto a tricky race track, and because California has extremely permissive rules that allow horses to run with the benefit of form-altering medications, the races yield meaningless upsets. Inferior horses win the fat purses, and the championship picture is unchanged. The magic of television fails to stretch 13 minutes into a sufficiently captivating four-hour broadcast to hold anyone but diehard racing fans. The Breeders' Cup is a bust, and horsemen decide that the existing racing calendar is perfectly sufficient to showcase and prove their horses.
Well, I'd have to say that Scenario A seems to have largely prevailed. Chief's Crown won, and though Slew O'Gold fell a bit short, that was attributed more to a bad hoof than anything else. I can't think of any race that was more thrilling than that first Classic. The Breeders' Cup is still here, and yes, most of the racing season is now just a prelude.

However, that certainly didn't erase the stigma many fans attached to Wild Again's Classic win, which may have cost Slew O'Gold Horse of the Year, awarded to John Henry despite the fact he'd only won on grass. As Crist reported the next year:
Some fans were bothered that Wild Again raced with the benefit of both the analgesic phenylbutazone and the diuretic furosemide in last year's Classic, and that all his victories had come over hard, speed-favoring tracks.
No doubt we'll be hearing some of the exact same language should Go Between defeat worthy eastern rivals in the Classic. As with the rules regarding Lasix, the industry will no doubt some day move to make dirt surfaces more uniform nationwide. My preference is that someone comes up with some mixture, whether dirt, wax, or some concoction of both, that fulfills the goals with which the synthetic project was launched. Whatever it decides, chances are that some new dichotomy will emerge to cloud the picture again. But hopefully, it will be a more worthy solution than New York having given in and legalized the medication other than the other way around.


Anonymous said...

8 deaths at Del Mar.

1 death at Saratoga (with more races)

Synthetic tracks are more expensive to maintain.

Synthetic track are more difficult to handicap.

when you make a bad buy,you sell for a loss and move on.

It's time for the CHRB to give up synthetic and move on to Quality dirt tracks.

Anonymous said...

And the breakdown at Saratoga came on turf, not dirt. It appears that there were no fatal breakdowns on dirt on the Saratoga dirt this year, though a couple of horses were vanned off and I don't know what happend to them.

Alan Mann said...

Yes, my understanding is that the breakdown came on the grass. Pretty amazing, even if the two that were vanned off didn't make it, which we hope was not the case. And I recall some complaints about the track last summer too.

Wind Gatherer said...

Is there an argument to be made that the fatal breakdowns are the result, mostly, of improper training (foundation, development) as opposed to racing surface?

Anonymous said...

In other news, NYRA forced out the track superintendent and the new guy started with the Belmont meet. Passero was accused of too much sealing but the horses at the Spa did not seem to mind.

Gorgeous day at Belmont today. Perfect weather and a nice assortment of faves and longshots.

Anonymous said...

To Winston: at the synthetics panel in Saratoga, vets and researchers both talked about catastrophic injury mostly being the result of a number of factors, one of which is bone being compromised by a series of small injuries that aren't properly attended to. No one saw racing surface as the single biggest factor in reducing injury.