Baseball analogy: Explaining elements of synthetic racing

30 thoughts on “Baseball analogy: Explaining elements of synthetic racing”

  1. Sid,
    Looks like John’s got good hands, excellent footwork and a rifle arm. Only thing I saw that I’d try to get him to work on is to get rid of that extra hop he takes on some grounders as he’s getting ready to throw. That can be a bad habit. Must be fun watching him mature into a player.

    Interesting thoughts about what it takes for horses to win on different surfaces. Mark Casse, who trains at OBS’s synthetic track and races all summer at Woodbine, said he’s had to adjust training techniques to get his horses fitter to run on Polytrack or synthetics.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen an issue so polarizing to the sport as this synthetic debate, among trainers, horseplayers and some turf writers/handicappers.


  2. Ray:
    Thanks for the comment and the suggestion. That’s John at 15; he’s 17 now and even smoother as a senior, though a hectic social life and interests in music have taken him off the D1 trail even though he’s been scouted and evaluated as a D1 prospect. Yes, been fun. Plus I have Joe, almost 14, coming up the line and what a shortstop he is, too!
    Btw, we train with the extra hop just to get them to “move through the ball” but you’re right that in game situations they must unload quicker, depending on the runner and their own clock.
    And you are right about the polarizing effects of synthetics. Casse’s comments to you about getting them fitter is exactly right, because they really do need that “stamina” to finish on the all-weather. Good chatting on Twitter, too, and, hey, stay outta trouble with women, yo!

  3. I really don’t understand some of the assertions being made here. It is arguably more difficult to get horses to a certain level of fitness when training on a flat, synthetic surface here in the U.S., than it is on deeper, more testing dirt surfaces (as Casse suggests). But on what basis does anyone claim that that success on synthetic surfaces requires more intrinsic stamina than success on dirt or turf surfaces?

    If you want to argue that certain dirt surfaces and hard turf courses provide a greater energy return than synthetic surfaces, which would help to explain why speed tends not to carry as well on the latter, I can at least understand the argument. But given fit racehorses contesting races over appropriate distances, is anyone seriously suggesting that those with more intrinsic stamina somehow enjoy an advantage on synthetic tracks?

    I am also confused by the assertion that breeding better horses is somehow connected to breeding horses that are likely to adapt more readily to synthetic horses. I don’t see any connection between the two at all. The Europeans are breeding plenty of good horses, and yet the subset which races over synthetic surfaces is hardly setting the world on fire.

    Did the U.S. originally develop horses well-suited to dirt surfaces by breeding “better” horses, or by breeding horses that were biomechanically better able to handle those break-away surfaces? It seems to me that the answer is the latter.

    I understand that breeding very athletic horses increases the odds that they might handle more than one surface well, but it would likely take many years before horses that are particularly well-suited to synthetics might be consistently bred. Which brings me back to my original point: does the industry really want to race on three different surfaces, further complicating an already complex game for breeders, owners, trainers and gamblers?

  4. Tinky, many questions, many circular, don’t know where to start except take a chill pill, relax, and look at the big picture I’m drawing with the baseball analogy. R-E-L-A-X.

    Okay. My point, again, is that certain “talents” emerge that allow some horses to succeed on synthetics.

    Got that part?

    The ability to handle the surface appears to be one such quality. So, too, does the ability to finish races, because racing on synth appears to tax horses more than on dirt. That appears to be the case. Dunno. But many trainers have mentioned the need for “stamina” and the ability to finish.

    Perhaps it’s because it’s more testing on the hindquarters that dirt sprint types with heavier quarters are not as suited to the surface? Dunno specifics, Tinky.

    Okay. Well, that’s it!

    But, and here’s where I tie it to breeding: We’ve been breeding faster, heavier, sprinter types for awhile, and our horses are not as suited to staying as, say, European horses. And so a G3 Euro like Gitano, for example, can come here and beat our best on synth in a G1 just as they do on turf.

    Perhaps we should be breeding a bit more stamina and less speed, even forgetting synths, because our dirt horses seem to stop at 9f anyway.


    And ultimately, top-class horses should be able to race over any surface.

  5. I certainly agree that, broadly speaking, we should be breeding for more stamina, and less speed. However, I have the impression that you are confusing stamina (or lack thereof) with running styles and tactics.

    In my view, Gitano Hernando didn’t win a big race in California because of superior stamina, nor do the vast majority of winners on synthetic surfaces prevail for that reason. If that were the case, then virtually every trainer who saddles horses in the U.S. (and Toronto) should be fired for gross negligence (i.e. placing losing horses in races over unsuitable distances).

    While it may be true that some horses do not stay quite as far on synthetics as they do on relatively speed-favoring dirt tracks or hard turf courses, that has to do with running style and tactics employed, rather than intrinsic stamina issues. And any competent trainer should be able to make the appropriate adjustments.

  6. You are confusing what I am saying. It’s not PURE stamina, but a combination of HANDLING THE SURFACE and having the ability to FINISH on it that creates stamina for this specific function.

    So, a dirt horse, for example, may have 12f stamina, but if he doesn’t HANDLE the surface, his stamina is moot!

    Synths have created a combo–specific “talents” such as a shortstop with a rifle arm–that are not germane to dirt racing but have more similarity to turf racing—though not verbatim

    It’s not BLACK and WHITE here, but gradations of GREY.

  7. Sid,

    You may well think that I am being pedantic, or perhaps it is a semantic issue, but when a turf horse cruises on the bridle, then fails to finish well on a dirt track, it is simply a matter of that horse failing to act on the surface, and has nothing whatsoever to do with stamina.

    Either a horse has the requisite stamina to stay a particular distance or not. If a horse is used too much early, or fails to finish well because it doesn’t handle the surface, then stamina is not a relevant variable.

    You say that synthetic tracks “have created combo–specific ‘talents'” which are “not germane to dirt racing”. Really? I don’t see any evidence for that at all. Horses need to be biomechanically suited to each surface in order to be fully effective, and the only other notable difference is that synthetics tend not to be as speed-favoring as many dirt surfaces. So, when you speak of the “ability to finish”, isn’t that simply a matter of a horse being ridden correctly (i.e. not being used prematurely)?

  8. Some of the confusion that the terminology used to convey something which is at least in part down to differences in physiology, and in part biomechanics.

    Stamina is used in athletics as an area of development of the ability to run relatively hard without crossing the lactate or ventilatory thresholds (what’s called steady state).

    It’s not the same as the ability to run long distances, which is endurance.

    So a good all-weather is not necessarily a horse that wants to run long (an endurance horse), but a horse who is able to put out the extra work required to run on many all-weather surfaces (as compared to dirt) without quickly crossing the lactate and/or ventilatory thresholds. So in that sense he has more stamina, not more endurance.

    Dirt favors a type that can stay near a fast opening pace and then tolerate a tremendous lactic acid build up in the late stages. Deeper surfaces favor a steadier opening pace – nearer the “steady state” or at least not too dramatically faster – and then the ability accelerate closer home.

    Obviously there are a whole lot of components that inter-related, and there are a lot of different combinations that can lead to excellence on one surface or another (or even all of them, or at the other extreme a “sweet spot” at one very specific venue). In general it is differences in biomechanics and physiology that mean some horses get home on the all-weather and some don’t not that successful all-weather horses want to run further (in fact Breeders’ Cup 1-2 Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator were stretching out to run 10f for the first time, against proven 10f dirt horses).

  9. I am going to respond for the last time—and respect that you are a knowledgeable person and are entitled to your opinions, so please keep them—with the baseball analogy, first.

    ss field balls differently on grass infields. they attack the ball, move in closer, etc. same techniques wouldn’t work as well on artificial; for one, ball moves harder and faster.

    ss on artificial turf who stay back need to compensate—with a stronger arm. that has become obvious, that to play deeper, you must have the gun to get the ball from a longer distance to first base.

    these are observations made by me. i’ve seen how a different surface has altered the game. others—less observant, say—will not notice this. they will use old methods of analyzing and not understand the subtlechanges that have modified athletic behavior.

    back to horses, but only briefly.

    artifial surfaces, i have noticed, are okay for training, and some horses will train well up to 5f on them.

    same horse, though, in a race, will “tire” after 5f, even though he handled the surface ostensibly for the work.

    mechanically, artificial surfaces are tough on the hind end, because the ground doesn’t break away and allow heavily muscled horses to propel as they would on dirt.

    so after a bit of this, they start to tire and are unable to finish.

    turf horses appear to transition better.

    Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator duplicated their exact form, for example, on this surface, while Curlin, who trained well on it, “tired” the last part and could not finish. Curlin was a horse who stayed 10f on dirt, but on the artificial surface, with the more “taxing” stride required he didn’t finish.

    Last year, turfhorses Gio Ponti and Twice Over also ran well.

    Dirt horses, in general, don’t run as well on the surface.

    Some horses, such as Zenyatta and Hard Spun, appear to handle dirt and all-weather the same.


    If not, I understand, but I don’t have the time to reply again.

    The point I made was subtle and not inteded for academic inspection. It was a “broad stroakes” impressionist piece to confer an idea, not a photographic representation of a fact.

  10. My response directly above was for Tinky. Alan’s response, probably written at the same time i was responding to Tinky, is very much on the mark and in line with my feelings of “stamina,” which is exactly as he puts it, not”endurance.” Thanks for that, Alan.

  11. Great info, different is different – no need to argue what is safer, or better, etc. – just figure out how to adapt to the different requirements.

    Take the baseball analogy for instance, your SS needs to develop a stronger arm when playing over artificial turf, so what does he do? Simply put, he practices throwing from those differences and gets stronger, more coordinated, etc.

    Human, or animal, the more you practice a certain physiological action, the better you get. Some small percentage have no need to practice, they are great everywhere, but why take the chance? Curlin didn’t have it.

    Why continue with Z on dirt out West, ship into CD at the last minute, gallop a few easy miles on dirt and then head into the biggest race of her life?

    She may perform, she may not ( I bet not ), but certainly a month of dirt works would have done no harm and given her a better chance?

    George Pratt, MIT: “Horses working on the Tapeta™ surface will experience one-half the impact as compared to horses working on a conventional surface.”

    From the above you can see how different physiologically a horse trained on synthetic will experience forces within the bones during a dirt effort.

    Consider a big mare like Zenyatta, she may be lucky this is her last race – covering 1.25 miles vs the boys on the hard stuff will be a huge shock to her system.

  12. Well, since Sid has no more patience for this parsing, I’ll address Alan, who has offered some useful insights above.

    You make a distinction between “stamina” and “endurance”, and then say:

    “So a good all-weather is not necessarily a horse that wants to run long (an endurance horse), but a horse who is able to put out the extra work required to run on many all-weather surfaces (as compared to dirt) without quickly crossing the lactate and/or ventilatory thresholds. So in that sense he has more stamina, not more endurance.”

    My response is that in the context of Thoroughbred racing, a sport and industry that we are all a part of, and that we all observe, the word “stamina” is almost invariably used to describe distance abilities and limitations. No one would state that a given horse “has the endurance to stay 12 furlongs, but lacks the stamina to be effective over that distance”, as it wouldn’t make any sense at all.

    I maintain that what both Sid and Alan are referring to are the enervating effects experienced by horses which fail to handle a given surface – whether synthetic, dirt or turf. Any horse which struggles on a surface is prone to squander a lot of energy as opposed to those which handle the surface well, and use their energy reserves more efficiently. When a fluid-actioned, fast ground turf horse struggles home on a soft course over 10 furlongs, a distance over which it was previously won, there is no difference in its “stamina” from race to race. It has simply failed to handle the surface efficiently, and of course will have likely tired as a result of the struggle.

    The same is true of synthetics. If a horse is unsuited to the surface, then it makes no sense to talk about a lack of stamina. If you want to argue that a horse which handles both synthetics and dirt equally well is likely to “stay” farther on the latter surface, I can understand that point. But stamina, or a lack thereof, isn’t a factor.

    I don’t dispute that trainers need to adopt different training styles when training on synthetics, just as riders have quickly learned to adopt somewhat different tactics on such surfaces. But the overriding factor that allows horses to perform well on synthetics is suitable biomechanics, just as it is for a turf horse to excel on turf, and a dirt horse to excel on conventional American tracks.

  13. Bill, you said:

    “Human, or animal, the more you practice a certain physiological action, the better you get.”

    But that fundamentally isn’t true for Thoroughbred racehorses. One can’t take a pure turf horse and train it on the dirt, and end up with an effective dirt horse. In fact, just to use some specific context, Christophe Clement and Bill Mott train virtually all of their turf horses on dirt tracks. Many of them don’t even breeze on turf. Do you believe that they would therefore be effective racing on dirt?

    Horses are, with very few exceptions, intrinsically best suited to certain surfaces, and no amount of training will change those surface preferences.

    Over generations there can obviously be adaptive changes in the breed, but no amount of training on a given a surface will allow, in a meaningful sense, an individual horse to adapt physiologically to that surface.

  14. Tinky,

    Thanks for asking Alan, and you and he are most welcome to go ’round and ’round until you feel sufficient that you have pounded into us what you want us to believe.

    But, please understand that it’s not a black and white issue like you’d like it to be.

    As i just mentioned, a horse might travel quite well on the synth for, say 5 furlongs, or maybe 7 furlongs, but then begin to tire and lose action because the surface is asking different parts of the body than dirt.

    You, on the other hand, would like us all to believe that the horse handles a surface or not—uniformly throughout. That’s an old way of looking at a new issue. Some horses actually do handle the synth well enough for part of the trip by compensating with other strengths, and at a certain point when other variables breakdown so too does the action.

  15. Sid,

    Glad to have you rejoin the discussion, though I don’t understand your ire. Why should I not further parse out my points when you and Alan are doing the same?

    No, I don’t think that it is black and white. Plenty of turf horses handle synthetics fairly well, and some equally well.

    But when you say:

    “Some horses actually do handle the synth well enough for part of the trip by compensating with other strengths, and at a certain point when other variables breakdown so too does the action.”

    I don’t see your point at all. How is that any different than pointing out that many turf horses will cruise comfortably on the bridle in dirt race, then struggle when under pressure? Just like that turf horse, horses which struggle and lose their action late on synthetic are obviously not well-suited to the surface. Unless, of course, you believe that a form reversal would simply be a matter of training them over synthetics and building up their stamina…

  16. Tinky:

    You wrote earlier: “I am also confused by the assertion that breeding better horses is somehow connected to breeding horses that are likely to adapt more readily to synthetic horses. I don’t see any connection between the two at all. The Europeans are breeding plenty of good horses, and yet the subset which races over synthetic surfaces is hardly setting the world on fire.”

    Let’s stay with the Europeans that you mention. First off, their top-level races are contested on turf, so you won’t find any “setting the world on fire” in Europe. However, when a European G3 type like Gitano Hernando comes here, he can defeat our best horses in the G1 Goodwood over synthetics.

    And when European milers such as Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator–legit G1 runners in Europe on turf—come here, they can defeat our marquee horse, Curlin, as well as all others in the BC Classic.

    Now, if you can’t see a connection here—and please re-read the quote from you—I don’t know what else to say in this matter.


  17. Tinky, apologies for my ire—but since you suggested pedantic and semantics, perhaps so. of my points in the baseball analogy was to point out that a shorstop without great fielding skills could still succeed on artificial turf IF he had a great arm.

    2. Similarly, the comparison would be that a lesser horse could find success on synthetic surfaces IF it had the ability to handle the surface and stamina to finish.

    Now, parse this:

    1. Lesser shortstop
    2. Lesser horse

    Conclusion: Less talented (from what we compare on dirt) can compete on synth vs. better dirt horses.


    1. Good turf horses appear to make transition better than good dirt horses.

    Now, is that simple enough for the point I was making?

  18. Wow, this is quite the debate lol.

    It seems that the horse racing surface discussion is completely analogous to the surface discussion in tennis.

    Obviously Pete Sampras was the best player in the world on grass and hard courts during his era, however on clay he was lucky if he got to the third round. The reason for this was most likely because he never put in the work to be a good baseline player, but also because it didn’t suit his strengths.

    Federer succeeded on all surfaces partly because he is talented, but also because he wasn’t married to the serve and volley style like Sampras was. Henman was also addicted to serve and volley and he was just as useless on clay, but quite effective on grass.

    Part of being succesful is being talented but part of it is not having a definitive style. I think horses that succeed on different surfaces are the ones that aren’t addicted to a particular running motion or running style.

    As always I love this post!

  19. Sid,

    With regards to your 11:14 post, I’m afraid that we view the same set of data rather differently.

    Apparently, you see the success of second-tier Europeans on synthetics (here in the U.S.) as evidence to support your earlier assertion that better horses are more likely to adapt to such surfaces, while I don’t see it that way at all.

    What I see is that the Europeans, broadly speaking, breed far better turf horses than we do in the U.S., and, as a good percentage of turf runners handle synthetics well, it is quite predictable that even their second-rank runners prove capable of winning top races on synthetics in the U.S.

    Put another way, the quality and depth of competition in Europe is far superior to the quality and depth of competition on turf in the U.S., and has been for decades. That is why, with rare exceptions, Europeans have long dominated the top turf events contested in the U.S. Now synthetics are thrown into the mix, and you find a rather thin group of runners competing on the new surface here – a subset of our dirt and turf populations. It is no surprise, then, that Group II or III European runners are able to succeed against Grade I runners here, as they are rarely taking a step up in class except in terms of the superficial grade of the race.

    1. At one time, we in this country bred better quality turf horses than those in Europe—horses that could actually go over there and win their classics and stay 12F. I am sure those same types of horses that we once bred would have done well on synthetics, too, for reasons you note.

      Many of those types were the result of imported sires from abroad that not only helped to breed better turf horses but actually added valuable bloodlines to the dirt population here as well. Forego, for example, was a son of the imported Forli, while Unbridled is out of a mare by the imported Le Fabuleux, etc. The imported stock added stamina and class to our breeding stock.

      Importing turf horses and mixing them with our dirt speed horses has always been a part of our programs, except in recent times, when we’ve gone our different ways from the rest of the world.

      Now, we’ve been breeding very much for speed, and
      physically speaking, these types are generally lthe heavily muscled, larger, bigger sprinter types that we have been breeding lately in this country; this type of dirt sprinter has not only shortened the breed here but has proven not suitable for synthetics, too.

      “Improving” and diversifying the breed will only help to get better dirt, turf, and, yes, synthetic runners, too.

  20. Genetics, pedigree, etc. sets the CEILING for a given thoroughbred athlete – but training variables dictate how close to that ceiling the individual reaches.

    Thoroughbreds are no different than humans, camels, greyhounds, etc., they have the same bone makeup, muscle cells, blood, and other systems.

    The fascinating thing about exercise physiology is that you get what you train for: a 200hp engine can train at 205hp and grow into a 205hp engine – then train at 210hp, etc.

    Unfortunately, the one size fits all approach trains each horse like a 250hp engine, those at 200hp physiologically get screwed, 225hp engines are benefited, and 300hp engines, like Zenyatta, while fantastic to watch are not truly reaching their enormous potential with standard 1.5 mile gallops and 4F breezes spaced 7 days apart.

    Mott trains his turf horses on dirt because that is what is easy and available, same with Clement and others. Those guys are reading marketing books on how to attract and retain owners – not physiology books on how to effectively condition for performance.

    1. Right, Bill. Too bad Zenyatta is trained by the anachronistic John Shirreffs. Imagine how good she might be if she were truly fit! And I’ll be sure to mention to Clement and Mott that their horses are under-conditioned as well.

      Just out of curiosity, is there a forward thinking trainer out there who you believe to be getting the most out of his or her horses? Wait – let me guess: Rudy Rodriquez?

  21. Preston Burch, Charlie Whittingham, Aidan OBrien, TJ Smith in Australia, are a few of what I consider forward thinking trainers. Only one of them is current, unfortunately.

    I’m sure Mr Mott, Sherrifs and the rest are tremendous horsemen, but my opinion is the old timers had it right with respect to conditioning.

    Legal drugs and one size fits all conditioning regimens have contributed to less starts, slower times in the routes, and an overall weaker breed.

    But to be fair, its no longer in vogue to race at 6 and amass 40+ lifetime starts, now its get that black type and off to the breeding shed.

  22. Hi Tinky-

    After re-reading your posts above, I have come to understand your point a bit better.

    Maybe there is a middle ground in our different opinons?

    As a 2 year old with still developing bones, ligaments, and tendons it has been proven that breezing over dirt remodels the bones differently than training over a more forgiving surfaces, such as wood chips.

    A dirt trained horse at 2 lays down thick bone on the inside and front of his cannon bones, and the ligaments and tendons similarly strengthen. 2 year olds on other surfaces get some bone, but not as much. Research was done at New Bolton many years ago and is fascinating, and includes xrays.

    So, perhaps one can train to excel on a dirt surface with a horse that is conformationally believed to be a turf athlete, but only if started early? (Which probably never happens)

    Maybe if you wait until 3 or 4 to do so, you have missed the boat physiologically and it’s too late to effect much of a change?

  23. Hi Bill,

    It is true that the rate at which bones remodel varies depending on the surfaces trained over, but I seriously doubt that could play a role in changing any intrinsic suitability to a given surface.

    Two types of conformation characteristics which often play significant roles in determining whether or not a horse will prove best suited to turf or dirt are length and angle of the pasterns, and hoof conformation. Neither of those characteristics can be impacted by training on different surfaces.

    Horses also have a natural action. Some are fluid-actioned (so-called “daisy-cutters” on turf), while others have a rounded, concussive action (Skip Away was a rather extreme example). Again, one cannot train horses to change their natural action, and certain types of action allow horses to handle certain surfaces better than others.

    Again, given certain pedigree, conformation and action, I see no possibility of pure turf horses being “trained” to handle dirt surfaces well. Those that are in-between, so to speak, might well benefit from training regularly on one or the other surface.

  24. Good morning Tinky-

    Thanks for the reply, seems we are closer to agreement than I first thought.

    Beyond way of going and/or biomechanics, horses running on dirt experience more lactic acid build up over 4F than they do breezing 6F over polytrack. I have collected such data from both CD and KEE, but have never been out West.

    Granted, Z would not have changed her stride spending the last 6 weeks training on dirt, but she would at least been able to buffer that lactic acid buildup several times in training before the 6F mark on Saturday in the heat of battle.

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