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Kentucky Derby: The All-Weather Track Preps

Handicapping sure has changed since the inception of the All-Weather Track. What’s shifting with it is the amount of Kentucky Derby contender’s that race on the surface leading up to the first Saturday in May. Already this season we're looking at a top contender named Violence. If his biggest win, coming on a synthetic surface, didn't catch your attention then let me fill you in; it was a prime example. This weekend we head back to California and back to this other surface for the G3 El Camino Real Stakes. 

 

  

So, racing on synthetics is common. Obviously it’s because more tracks have opted to permanently replace the dirt. And since those tracks are doing so well, this is something that isn’t going to change any time soon. But even though the numbers are there let’s not forget about something else that is worthy of our applause; thoroughbred trainers are pretty good. Maybe it’s because they were forced to but I have become impressed with how confident they are at racing their horses on more than one surface. And it doesn’t stop there. Not only are they getting better at establishing a comfort level with each surface, they’re also winning on both. Most importantly, trainers are doing a very nice job at transitioning their horses back to the dirt when the time is right.

 

  

A few years ago it was very easy to disregard a Kentucky Derby entry that didn’t have enough experience on dirt. Now, that is something that needs to be considered very carefully before doing it again. For me personally, in 2011, I had to learn the hard way that racing is racing regardless of the surface. I was quick to discount Animal Kingdom leading up to the Kentucky Derby while a few people around me were telling me the exact opposite. Unfortunately, I wasn’t listening and I handicapped him solely on the fact that he had yet to race on dirt. Big mistake.
 
 
However, I did learn my lesson. Yeah, that’s right. I’m not here just to tell you about my foolish moments on the first Saturday in May. If I do I will at least follow it up with one of my more scholarly handicapping stories. Last year I began to follow I’ll Have Another very closely after he finished 2nd to Creative Cause in the G2 Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar. I liked him enough that I went back to him the next time he raced in California. Even though he didn’t finish well in his dirt debut prior (6th in the G1 Hopeful at Saratoga) he was ready when he raced on dirt the second time around. That is when we, yes we, scored in the G2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita.
 
 
From there the rest is history. When he wore the roses last year he became the third Kentucky Derby winner that had previously won a race on synthetics and the fourth that had previously raced on the surface. Street Sense is the only one of the four that didn’t win on an All-Weather track. In 2009, Mine That Bird became the first that had previously won on it and in 2011 Animal Kingdom became the first to ever win after never racing on dirt. 
 
For me, what’s interesting about this discussion is how much it has changed in such a short amount of time. For example, this once seemed to be a very difficult handicapping quarrel. Or at least it was for me because I was very reluctant to bet on polytrack horses after they switched to the dirt. I also had trouble when a horse would go back and forth between the two in the months leading up to the Kentucky Derby. This was especially true when a derby entry’s last race was the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. But even though Street Sense did it, he still didn’t convince me 100%.  
 
But here is where my Kentucky Derby handicapping has evolved. This minor detail is no longer an issue. I know that some horses will always favor one surface over the other but I can also say that it takes an awful lot to surprise me. Even if a potential derby contender is the best All-Weather track runner in the country yet failed on dirt, I won’t be able to tell you which one will load into the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby. I’m also not saying that racing on the other surface is some secret recipe for success. My point is that trainers these days are very good at transitioning them between surfaces and that how a horse trains, performs and recovers is all that matters.  
 
Now maybe there are still some anti All-Weather track racing fans out there. If so, this may be hard to stomach but here it is: the best will always race just as hard on any surface. I won’t try to convince anyone that is still loyal to playing the horses that only race on dirt but I do support the trainers that use preps on this other mysterious surface. That’s because I find it hard not to take advantage of the races that present the best chance at scoring points and for moving down the road to the Kentucky Derby. It’s a solid strategy and it’s a pretty simple one; take what’s there and hopefully there will more to come. 
  
For this reason the El Camino Real Derby gets my approval for having a place in the first ever Kentucky Derby prep season under the new qualification system. It has a history, Charismatic raced in the El Camino in 1999, and it’s a solid prep for the Santa Anita Derby. Golden Gate Fields is a very fine track so I’m also happy for them as well. 
 
Finally, it is the fourth out of 8 All-Weather track preps that will be raced in the 2013 season.  They are:
 
RACE TRACK WINNER
Breeders’ FuturityKeenelandJoha
G3 GreyWoodbineRiver Seven
G1 CashCallHollywoodViolence
G3 El Camino RealGolden Gate 
G3 SpiralTurfway 
UAE DerbyMeydan 
G1 BluegrassKeeneland 
G3 LexingtonKeeneland 
 
Good luck to our field in this year's El Camino Real Derby. We wish all of our entries a safe trip as we look forward to seeing you further down the trail. If so, it will be interesting to see if any will become a solid All-Weather Track contender. 

 

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Older Comments about Kentucky Derby: The All-Weather Track Preps...

CauseForConcern: Good Question(s). I can't answer with any certainty that switching between surfaces increased the chance of injury for AK or IHA. In comparison, however, Street Sense performed soundly on both surfaces before and after the derby without any major setbacks. Also, Super Saver never raced on anything but dirt but like MTB he also never followed up with any significant efforts in his 3 races that followed the derby. So, I can’t say for sure but your question probably varies quite differently depending on who you ask.
  • CauseForConcern · Hey, Bryan. Though I know that there probably isn't enough stats to back up this contention, I find it ironic that Violence has sustained an injury, after having run on synthetic. Maybe there's something more to this? · 663 days ago
I also think the preps are horse specific. Some horse can make the transition easier, and with greater success than others
I dont think there is a connection in switching from synthetic to dirt and injuries to horses. If there was I think a pattern greater than 3-4 horses would have emerged, and the horse racing world would have caught on.
Thanks for the feedback, kyderbypost. You did mention that Street Sense performed soundly(which he did) on synthetic, but isn't it ironic that he was 0-for-3 on that surface? Anyhow, looking forward to your next post. Keep up the good work. zatt, I believe that Einstein might be the only horse to win Grade 1's on on all three suraces?
Dullahan seems like a good example, and flying right behind him was Went the Day Well. Outside of the Derby, Einstein comes to mind.
Old Bay Meadows was destined for the wrecking ball many years before that mandate.
CauseForConcern: 2nd question - Yes, by mandate of the California Horse Racing Board in 2006, i believe, all tracks had to install synthetic surfaces. Bay Meadows didn't meet the deadline and eventually closed. However, i think that Bay Meadows was closing anyway so they didn't see any reason to pay a huge bill for an updated surface. Secondly, the mandate was more of an experiment. Santa Anita pushed back and also had trouble draining water from the new surface. So, they made their case and got approved to return to dirt.
Have we seen that "synthetic horse" this year in Violence? He has an experience edge on most of the contenders.
  • kentuckyderbypost · It's possible. I like his pedigree and i like what i saw last time out. He's on the right path, can't wait to see him next time out · 673 days ago
Horses that excel on synthetics do it, in part, or running at a much later energy distribution than is required at CD.......The TRACK and its energy requirements for success tell if a horse can handle it or not.
Good article. A couple of questions. Of the three that won on AWT(Mine That Bid, Animal Kingdom, and I'll Have Another), their careers would either shortly come to a close, or, in the case of Mine That Bird, never followed up his Derby win with anything of major significance. A question that probably can't be answered, but, could the injuries of AK and IHA have been accelerated because of the change of track? Also, did California a few years back, make it mandatory for all tracks to transfer to synthetic, which caused Bay Meadows to close? If so, then why was Santa Anita allowed to go back to dirt? I know that they had Pro-Ride, while the other three tracks had Cushion(Hollywood), Tapeta(Golden Gate), and Polytrack(Del Mar). Why wasn't Santa Anita instructed to place another synthetic surface?
The one saving grace to all these synthetic preps, at least for the Kentucky Derby, is that the Churchill Downs main track seems to be as friendly to synthetic or turf runners as any dirt track in the nation.

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