America's dirt die-hards dig in for war against artificial tracks

Santa Anita has torn up its synthetic turf to go back to basics. European runners will not join the celebrations. Chris McGrath reports
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The Independent Online

For Europeans, the American idyll is under threat. Not here in Chicago, admittedly. The 28th Arlington Million remained faithful to the premise of the first, that racing could truly become a game without frontiers. John Gosden saddled first and third, while the Americans successfully defended both the other big turf prizes of the weekend – including one with a colt switched to grass after running third in the Kentucky Derby. After unprecedented Breeders' Cup success in the past two years, on a congenial new surface at Santa Anita, Europeans could come here and conclude that the transatlantic sport is progressing towards a meaningful, lasting synthesis.

Just three days before the Million, however, Santa Anita's owners had announced a return to the sort of dirt surface that for so long divided the genes and destinations of American and European thoroughbreds. Symbolically, at the very least, this represented a dispiriting retrenchment to European eyes. But the news was greeted with relief by many American professionals, pundits and punters. Dirt will be back on 26 December, and top trainers like Bob Baffert could ask for no better Christmas present.

In 2006 all Californian courses were statutorily obliged to install synthetic surfaces to redress disturbing attrition rates on dirt. But the new circuits, also laid at Keeneland and here at Arlington, are loathed by traditionalists. The big eastern tracks retained dirt,likewise Churchill Downs, home to the Kentucky Derby as well as the next two Breeders' Cups. The schism was widened by poster girls for each coast in Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta – notably when Rachel Alexandra's owner refused to run her on a "plastic" surface in the Breeders' Cup Classic, leaving Zenyatta to win what amounted to a home game out west.

She was chased home by Gio Ponti, who won the Million last year and finished second to Debussy this time, and then Twice Over for Europe. This was not the Breeders' Cup as Americans knew it, and many wanted to take their ball home. Europeans, in contrast, hailed the confluence of equine welfare with their own best interests.

So is Santa Anita's decision to go back to the future simply a local solution to a local problem – maintaining the track has proved a genuine headache – or a line in the sand? After saddling Paddy O'Prado to win the Secretariat Stakes here, Dale Romans spoke for many: "I think we're getting away from the artificial surfaces over here. I don't think we've put them in the right places, with the climate we have to deal with, and I don't think they've been as consistent as we would have expected. You never quit trying to find out what's safest for the racehorse, but right now I think we have to go back to the drawing board."

But the next step is hard to envisage, so polarised and poisoned has the debate become. A survey that suggested improvement in injury rates, for instance, was savaged by opponents of the new surfaces as statistically inadequate. Instead of acknowledging that the early evidence was encouraging, and warranted prolonging the experiment, they instead amplified anecdotal charges about hidden hazards.

For a detached testimony, then, it was fortunate to find Jerry Bailey here over the weekend. The now retired rider of a record 15 Breeders' Cup winners urged that the Santa Anita situation should be judged on its own merits, rather than as a final, decisive twist of the weathervane.

"It's not only about synthetics, but the different kinds of synthetics, and how they perform," he said. "It's quite evident Santa Anita didn't really get what it paid for, or at least what it expected. So you cannot really compare their experience to places like Keeneland, or Del Mar. Is it the fact those are shorter meets that keeps the surface stable and consistent? It's hard to know."

Breeders understandably dread depreciation of dirt bloodlines, but Bailey denies that resistance is driven by vested interests. "It does potentially change the way America has bred its horses over the last 20 or 30 years. If you have a game plan, though, there's still plenty of opportunity for dirt in America. You just avoid the handful of synthetic tracks. I'm not so sure there's any hidden agenda."

However painful the catharsis, it will surely be necessary to persevere with the new tracks if benefits can be established in terms of welfare. "I agree – if the statistics are there," Bailey said. "But they haven't proved to be dramatically that way. Because you have soft-tissue [injuries] on the synthetic, and catastrophics on the dirt. Now it has reduced somewhat the catastrophic injuries, which is what we're looking for, though I'm not sure to the degree expected. It's not black and white. And I'm not sure we've given it enough time to play out, either."

The old school mutters that synthetics stifle class, and express contempt even for Zenyatta, now unbeaten in 18 starts. Her defence of the Breeders' Cup Classic will require her to prove just as good on dirt, and is already causing furious partisanship.

To Europeans, her brilliance seems familiar and authentic. But just look at what happened in the Million. Yes, Debussy clearly relished the novel challenge; and yes, Gio Ponti's jockey consumed too much gas charging from last before being mugged close home. But Gio Ponti is as good a turf horse as they have had here in a while, and Debussy has never remotely approached elite status at home in Britain.

Little wonder if the American industry is reluctant to embrace revolution. It doesn't breed good turf horses, compared to the Northern Dancer days. And it will be a similar story on the new surfaces. Dirt champions break their rivals with a remorseless rhythm. These new tracks, like turf, favour horses that can rip through the gears. Only the most hopeless reactionaries could suggest that such horses lack "class". There are insular Americans, of course. But they did not found this nation, and nor will they renew it.

Turf Account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Spanish Island (8.40 Kempton)

Shrewd, in-form trainer Mikael Magnusson has wasted no time tackling handicaps after this American-bred colt's impressive switch to this surface 11 days ago. The strict form may be limited, but not his scope for further progress.

Next best

Cat Hunter (2.30 Yarmouth)

Worth giving her a chance to turn over a new leaf, having shown glimpses of promise for her previous stable and now in the hands of an all-time master in the art of training fillies.

One to watch

Bohemian Melody (M Botti) represents a stable going places and remains on the upgrade, to judge from the way he travelled at Kempton the other day, taking second after being badly hampered.

Where the money's going

Native Khan, who preserved his unbeaten record at Sandown on Saturday, is 20-1 from 25-1 with William Hill for the 2,000 Guineas.