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TrackNotes: Fibers and Wax

This is a perfect opportunity to comment on artificial surfaces in horse racing.

In Saturday's Gotham Stakes on the inner track at Aqueduct, trainer Jeff Mullins shipped maiden winner I Want Revenge all the way from Santa Anita basically to find out if the horse likes to run on dirt, the surface of the Kentucky Derby. The horse had finished a nose second in December's Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood and then third in the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita early last month. Those two tracks have different artificial surfaces. More on Santa Anita later.

Well, I Want Revenge looks on his way to the final plateau on the $99,000 Answer as he won by 8-1/2 lengths (Kid Joe Talamo, in my opinion, went to the whip a little too often and a little too late, knowing he had the win, to push this horse. This could be a mistake that manifests itself on Derby Day.). Imperial Council came from last place to finish second and just nose out Mr. Fantasy.

Mullins got his answer. But horses like The Pampelmousse and Pioneer of the Nile will most likely go to the Derby without ever having raced on dirt. Others will have their final prep on the fake stuff at Keeneland. In 2006, Sinister Minister annihilated the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland and was near the top of the tote board for the Derby. He finished 16th.

The opinion here is that the use of artificial racing surfaces in this country has been a knee-jerk reaction typical of our quick-fix mentality.

Turfway Park was the first when it installed Polytrack in 2005. It was as much to ensure racing in the crummy weather of Kentucky in winter as it was for horse safety. Same at Woodbine in Toronto in 2006. But, lo and behold, the track had very few breakdowns - maybe one or two - in its first meet. Keeneland installed the stuff for it's fall meet in 2006, but get this: Keeneland itself is the North American marketer of the stuff! So one of the finest little racetracks in this country was just about taken out of racing context for marketing purposes.

Then, in 2006, breakdowns started happening at both Del Mar and here at Arlington Park. Too many, to be sure, but no more than in many previous years. I'm sure you saw the local news idols out at Arlington saying, basically, "horses are dying and these people are cruel." I agree, something had to be done. Of course, you'll never get an explanation from these tracks, but the blogs and the rumors at Arlington were that the banking on the turn into the stretch was screwed up or that there was a wide dip at the spot. You know what it's like to step into and out of a two-inch hole you didn't know was there.

So in all of its corporate PR paranoia, Churchill Downs Inc. installed the plastic stuff at Arlington for the 2007 season. It consists of a mixture of sand, synthetic fibers and recycled rubber coated with wax. Some iterations include tiny fragments of ground up telephone wire. Polytrack itself released figures of 29 breakdowns in either morning workouts or races in the season before Polytrack, and 22 in the first season of Polytrack at Arlington. In the "deadly" summer of 2006, breakdowns tailed off after what you remember as the media rush to the story. Could it be because Arlington was taking measures to fix that dip? Track management did go dark a few days to tear up and rebuild that section of the turn, but said it couldn't really find anything wrong.

At about this time, the California Horse Racing Board - unilaterally and without research or scientific data - mandated that all California tracks have the stuff installed by the end of 2007.

Del Mar also installed it in 2007. Relatively speaking, the weather at Arlington is pretty consistent when it comes to morning versus afternoon. Not so at Del Mar. (Del Mar had to change its recipe at the outset when it was found that the copper in the telephone wires would probably leech into the ocean, Del Mar being "Where the Surf Meets the Turf.") It then found that while workouts in the morning were normal - with the cool morning temps - the afternoon races were almost comical. Horses were taking a day or two to run nine furlongs. And while breakdowns were down, trainers began complaining of deep tissue and muscle injuries - trading one set of injuries for another.

Hollywood Park followed with Cushion Track. Santa Anita went with Cushion Track, but what was probably a combination of screwed up installation and the propensity for rain to come down in buckets in that locale, the track would not drain properly. Santa Anita lost a large portion of 2008's spring meet because the track's sophisticated drainage system was clogged and not draining. With the 2008 Breeders Cup looming, officials scrambled and called the Australians, who installed Pro-Ride, or some combination of the two materials. Tapeta Footings is installed at Golden Gate Fields and Presque Isle Downs.

My points are these:

* It's difficult enough to handicap races without the substantial guesswork of considering synthetic surfaces. The axiom racing would like you to believe is that synthetic racing is very comparable to turf racing, and the 2008 Breeders Cup results bore some of that out. Old-timers will growl that a horse doesn't know anyway and it can run on anything, but that's not entirely true. While Einstein in fact proved he can run on anything by winning the Santa Anita Handicap Saturday, the entire angle on Court Vision was his return to synthetic. He finished seventh. Who's to say a horse doesn't get confused? The great Curlin himself was compromised by the fake stuff in last year's Breeders Cup Classic; it was known he didn't take to turf and he went into the Classic guessing. It will be years before there is enough data to make surface conclusions, much as we already have turf-breeding and wet track tendencies recorded. The only hope is that the artificial stuff gets replaced, as some feel it might.

* Why didn't Churchill Downs Inc. spend the $10 million to $14 million on building and maintaining the very best dirt course it can at Arlington, one of America's finest racing venues? Is AP a guinea pig? How does this bode for Churchill Downs itself? Will the Kentucky Derby be run on fibers and wax in the future? Racing fans are very concerned. And what about Saratoga or Belmont? Why just give up on dirt?

So on April 30, on the eve of Kentucky Derby Friday, get out your dartboard and start throwing. By the way, it also looks like Stardom Bound, one of the finest fillies in the land, will also come into Louisville without any dirt experience.

On the Triple Crown Trail
* The big news last week was I Want Revenge and his dazzling triumph in the Gotham Stakes by 8.5 lengths. He answered the questions about dirt. He'll be back in New York in the Wood Memorial.

* Stardom Bound, the filly whose connections admitted they needed to see a big win to consider her for the Derby, did not get it in the Santa Anita Oaks. Jockey Mike Smith admitted jockey error in giving the horse too much to do. Nevertheless she turned in a valiant effort and showed her class by running wide and just getting up for a narrow victory. Unless IEAH Stables gets a bad case of Derby fever, she'll run May 1 in the Kentucky Oaks.

* There are so many impactful 3-year-old races this weekend, all I can do is count them down and list the horses to watch, pretty much in the order of their regard.

1. Louisiana Derby, Fair Grounds. This race is loa-ded. Friesan Fire hopes to continue his rise while Flying Pegasus looks to win his first stakes at 3. Can Illinois' own Giant Oak forget his terrible trip in the Risen Star and put that mulligan to good use? Patena is on the minds of many, but he hasn't raced in over two months. He's in Rick Dutrow's barn now, so the bar is high. Uno Mas beat Friesan Fire last December, but on the Derby trail, that was a long time ago, and Friesan's beaten him twice since then. Both Uno Mas and Free Country need to take the proverbial next step or it'll be no mas for them. And, can Papa Clem translate his California form at Fairgrounds. Once again, it's the synthetic-to-dirt angle that I Want Revenge faced last week. Watch for rain.

2. Rebel Stakes, Oaklawn Park. Old Fashioned looks to maintain his status as the leading Derby contender while Silver City looks to avenge his Southwest Stakes loss and beat Old Fashioned. Wise Kid is a wiseguy horse, but look out for Hamazing Destiny, coming off a big maiden win and running for the first time for D. Wayne Lukas.

3. Tampa Bay Derby, Tampa Bay Downs. Is General Quarters for real after his Sam Davis upset? Tampa Derby favorite Hello Broadway and Davis runner-up Sumo also want to know. Look out for Sumo, he closed nicely for second in the Sam Davis. Also keep an eye on Alan Garcia on Nowhere to Hide (this horse was also entered in the Louisiana Derby on Saturday, so this means he is very well intentioned here), and I always consider a Holy Bull offspring - this time it's Perfect Bull.

4. San Felipe, Santa Anita. Pioneer of the Nile ostensibly has no challengers in this race. If that's true, does this race do him much good besides conditioning? Bob Baffert insists his next race is the big showdown before the Derby. OK. There's also a question as to how many horses will show up for this race.

In other top races:

* They call her special. The same kind of special as Stardom Bound? Rachel Alexandra leads the field in the Fairgrounds Oaks at Fair Grounds Saturday. Four Gifts might challenge.

* Ameribelle and Rock Candy lead the field in the Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay.

* Feature at Hawthorne Saturday is the $50,000 Hula Chief Stakes with old stalwarts Dakota Rebel, Lissa's Star, Officer Rocket, Shadowbdancing and High Expectations. Pick one.

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Thomas Chambers is the Beachwood's man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes every Friday. You can reach him here.

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