The post before this one, Jessica Chapel addresses DRF’s clear anti-synthetic stance, engendered a number of comments from some well known racing people, including Steven Crist of Daily Racing Form, Ray Paulick of Paulick Report, Barry Irwin of Team Valor, and Alan Porter, the pedigree pundit, primarily relating to the perceived role of the daily paper’s editorial slant against synthetic surfaces. Barry’s (second comment) and Alan’s comments, however, are particularly interesting in relation to pedigree and performance, and they tie in directly to one of my own comments, reproduced below in response to this from Barry Irwin, who wrote, “I own one of the world’s most proficient steeds on man-made surfaces. He is one of those rare horses that has the ability to actually get into a good rhythm on surfaces that tend not to allow the beauty of movement that one usually only seems (sic) on dirt.”
Presumably Barry was speaking of Team Valor’s and Gary Barber’s all-weather specialist Gitano Hernando, who came from England last year to win the Grade 1 Goodwood at Santa Anita and most recently won the Group 3 Diamond Stakes over Dundalk’s all-weather course across the pond before finishing fourth to Twice Over in the Group 1 Champion Stakes on turf at Newmarket. Gitano Hernando has won 5 of 6 lifetime starts on all-weather surfaces, including a race at the highest level, and his only loss on it came in the Dubai World Cup over the Tapeta at Meydan, where he was 6th, beaten 2 1/4 lengths.
Gitano Hernando is a good all-weather horse, I feel, because not only does he travel smoothly over the surface but he has the stamina required to finish on it. The same can be said of Zenyatta. Now, these qualities may also be shared by dirt or turf horses (probably more so by turf horses and one reason many turf horses have transitioned well to synthetic surfaces), but without them it’s difficult to be successful on all-weather. Conversely, these same qualities alone don’t necessarily make a good dirt horse, though many good horses, such as Zenyatta, don’t have to carry their tracks with them. Zenyatta also happens to be by a sire, Street Cry, who gets top-quality horses on dirt, turf, and all-weather tracks, as well as horses that succeed over a range of distances, from top-quality sprinters (see Street Boss) to extreme stayers (see Melbourne Cup winner Shocking).
A similar phenomenon has taken place at the youth baseball level (actually at college and below) with the advent of field turf, an artificial surface. I wrote this comment in response to Barry’s to make the analogy between field turf in baseball and synthetic surfaces at the track and the various talents that become isolated to succeed on them:
I agree with you about “beauty of movement” on dirt and the dynamics of racing on synths, and if you’ll bear with me—I’m a baseball coach—I’ve found the same analogy to be true in bb w the advent of the new “field turf”–an artificial surface. What this did to the bb player was similar to what you describe with the racehorse; the ss, for example, needed to play deeper, but the true bounces took away much of the “approach” and “fielding techniques” we’d teach for grass infields, with bad hops, slow rollers, and a variety of different ground balls at various speeds. Instead, the ss could just wait back for the ball on field turf, usually skipping hard and fast and uniformly, and what he needed instead of approach and technique and feet was a stronger arm to throw to 1st from deeper in the field. So, in essence, the “beauty” of a polished infielder’s technique and feet were being replaced by so-so fielders with a strong arm.
For purists in bb such as me, field turf is awful; however, it exists, for whatever reasons—to be able to play in bad weather; cheaper to maintain, etc—and we’ve adapted to it. But we’ve had health concerns about it as well, such as rubber particles being ingested, etc.
The video below demonstrates many of the fielding techniques we teach young shortstops, such as fielding the ball out front, being aggressive to the ball on slow rollers, moving through the ball towards first base, etc. They were developed to field ground balls on natural dirt fields with a grass infield, and they are the athletic movements that show the “beauty of movement” that Barry alluded to for horses. They do, however, become less important on artificial turf, and conversely the shortstop with the absolute gun but lesser fielding techniques can succeed on field turf, though a top fielder is a top fielder and doesn’t need to carry his field with him, either, and it’s always preferable to have the best fielder no matter the surface.
Alan Porter, in his comments, suggested that “dilution” is taking place with the advent of the third surface, and he’s right to an extent.
But what this really points to in the long run is the need to breed better horses. This means cooperation from all aspects of the racing and breeding industries, from bringing more stamina back to the breed and less reliance on pure speed to uniform medication policies to diverse racing programs to better sire selection. In other words, we need to develop stronger arms in our polished shortstops, and better fielding techniques for those with the arms. Only then will we have such as the Zenyattas of the world—horses that can win on dirt and all-weather (and I bet she’d win on turf, too).
Zenyatta, below in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita: