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55,000 Furlongs to the Finish

Was the Training Surface the Key to Animal Kingdom's Victory in Dubai?

The 2013 Dubai World Cup featured one of the most powerful and dominating wins I have seen in recent memory. In the world’s richest race, and against some of the best ten-furlong horses in the world, Animal Kingdom again showed the talent and poise that won him the Kentucky Derby. For those who have confidently followed Animal Kingdom’s troubled career, this win was not surprising. We have all known that Animal Kingdom is one of the most versatile horses in the world today, having won on dirt, turf, and synthetic racing surfaces.


Animal Kingdom’s path to the Dubai World Cup was not like the other American dirt runners. After training for a turf race in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup, Animal Kingdom was shipped to Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland to spend part of his winter and regroup for a spring time assault on the Dubai World Cup Carnival. Nothing sounds very unique about this path until one recognizes that the training surface at Fair Hill is Tapeta. After training there for a short period, he was shipped to Palm Meadows to focus on turf training for his prep race in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap.


Trainer Graham Motion has not been shy about his strategy to focus the derby winner’s attention to turf. Couple his successful turf history with the recent majority sale of Animal Kingdom to Arrowfield Stud in Australia, additional turf graded stake wins would only increase the horse’s value on the international market. So like all of the recent winners of the Dubai World Cup, the training surfaces of choice were anything but dirt.


How important is training a horse on synthetic surfaces for a race that is on a synthetic surface? South African trainer Mike de Kock seems to think it is not only important, but necessary. In a recent blog by Bloodhorse turfwriter Steve Haskin, de Kock suggested that a horse actually goes through musculoskeletal changes as they adapt to the synthetic surface. He claims the surface is deceivingly fast and when many late shippers train their horses, they work a little quicker than when on dirt, almost too fast. This makes the gallops look strong and effortless, but when the horses are exerting race level speed, they cannot rate their energy distribution like they are used to and tire at the end of races.


This very accurately describes Royal Delta’s last two trips to Meydan. Royal Delta is a poster child of thoroughbred racing. She boasts an exceptional pedigree, proven success at the ten-furlong distance, and is a two-time Eclipse Award champion. She has previously been successful on synthetic surfaces, so of course the ten-furlong trip of the Dubai World Cup should be within her potential. In both years she shipped to Dubai, she certainly lived up to her grace in morning workouts leading up to the race. She was described as one of the best workers in the mornings, apparently getting over the surface with ease.


In the 2012 edition, she had an extremely troubled trip, which excused her unusual performance, so in 2013 Mike Smith was looking to give the 5-year-old every opportunity to become the first mare to win the World Cup. Shooting straight to the lead, she looked comfortable, relaxed, and like she was being wound up, ready to be shot of a cannon once pointed down the stretch. However, it was not Royal Delta that displayed an unrelenting turn of foot. Instead she didn’t fire at all. She looked like no one expected her to. This was very uncharacteristic of her usual top form.


Her preparation for the World Cup could not have been more different than Animal Kingdom. She wintered at Payson training center, and prepped in the Sabin Stakes on dirt, to which she cruised to an effortless 5 length win. Bill Mott is one of the best trainers around, and there is no way that Royal Delta was not in prime physical condition come Dubai World Cup day. It had to be the Tapeta surface at Meydan. It looks like Mike de Kock’s theories were spot on for this dirt-loving mare.


Since the Dubai World Cup Carnival’s switch to Tapeta, the only other US trained horse to find the winner’s circle was Carl O’Callaghan's Kinsale King in the 2010 Golden Shaheen. Before shipping to Meydan, O’Callaghan decided he wanted to see how his horse would take the Tapeta and sent his horse to Golden Gate Fields for 3 weeks. Golden Gate, along with Presque Isle Downs are the only two tracks in the United States to race on the Tapeta surface. How can something that seems like such common sense be so uncommon for U.S. horses, especially after O’Callaghan proved it worked?


Presque Isle Downs does not actively host races during the winter, and is located in Pennsylvania; not exactly an ideal training location during the early months of the year. Golden Gate Fields, however, is situated in the temperate winter climate of the San Francisco Bay and runs the winter-spring meet from October to June. Yet still no top handicap horses show up. The only reason I can speculate is that there are no races at Golden Gate to make an extended trip worth it. Looking at the 2013  schedule offered, the only stakes races available in the months of January, February, and March are either $50,000 listed stakes (at six furlongs) or those restricted to three-year-olds.


I wonder what would happen if Golden Gate Fields offered a $150,000 grade 3 race (similar to the Sabin that Royal Delta used as a prep) in February. Would Dubai hopefuls show up to train and race? Aside from timing, the track surface is something that Golden Gate Fields has to offer that Santa Anita or Gulfstream Park do not.


Money doesn’t exactly grow on trees, so simply offering another high-pursed race is not as easy as it sounds. However, with the right marketing, sponsorship, and request for talent, it could become quite a success. However, if something like this were to happen, it would need to happen soon. As Animal Kingdom’s spotlight fades, we will refocus our attention to see if top class runners like Little Mike, Royal Delta, Trinniberg, and Private Zone can regain the form we all know them to possess.


*-A special thanks to Steve Haskin for his blog that inspired me to follow up with my own rendition of the importance of training on the Tapeta surface. 


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Older Comments about Was the Training Surface the Key to Animal Kingdom's Victory in Dubai?...

The key to his win was that he is a fast, adaptable, classic horse... DUH
While he did have an injury plagued career, I think Animal Kingdom's 11 race career is also a reflection of the modern trend in racing which is to run the horse as few times as possible. After the Breeders Cup he could have run in a race like the Cigar Mile, instead they waited until Gulfstream and ran on the Turf as a prep for Dubai. It is hard to compare a horse with only two Grade/Group One wins with the great horses of the past, although personally I think he had as much talent as many of the great horses. I just wish he had had the chance to race more times.
Going into this race, this was a proven multi surface horse. I handicapped him the same as I would have Wise Dan, except I added the extra quarter mile that he was proven at. I also added the fact this was the third race back after a comeback from an injury layoff. Even though he ran and lost against Wise Dan and POE, I considered those as I would prep races. In truth he made a believer out of me with that fantastic BC run. In my wildest dreams I never anticipated a run like that off a seven month injury layoff. I would love to see him run 3 more races this year if it were possible. He probably won't be rated as one of the great ones because he had an injury plagued career that only allowed 11 races, but in my mind he belongs with the best of them.
Until the World Cup race all the commentators were talking about how poorly the American horses were doing at Meydan, and except for Animal Kingdom that continued in the World Cup. It seems to me pretty clear now that to be successful in Dubai a horse needs good turf and/or synthetic form and especially Tapeta form. In the future American trainers and owners should leave the dirt horses in the United States.
From speculative conversation to blog...I like it! To me, the surface was the biggest factor for Royal Delta. I'm sure training over tapeta definitely gave Animal Kingdom an edge, but I have [finally] come to the conclusion that Animal Kingdom is a freak of nature. Shame on us for letting the Aussies buy him away from us.
According to the Tapeta website, there are about 10 training centers around the world that have Tapeta surfaces --->
Definitely food for thought and a factor ... whether or not it is the biggest factor will remain a question. The last thing anyone wants to do right now is take anything away from Animal Kingdom. Very interesting read, Matt.

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Meet Matt Scott 

My horseracing journey began when I was 16 years old and my mom took me to Hollywood Park. Although I did not fully appreciate it at the time, the experience stuck with me forever. 10 years later, during one of my many international business trips to Hong Kong, I visited Sha Tin racetrack to watch the races. This is where my true passion began. 


Holding a masters degree in mechanical engineering, the puzzle of handicapping intrigued me. I have made a career of making decisions based on trends, patterns, and formulas, which is why I think I was initially drawn to the sport. However, I have truly learned to appreciate the horses and how magnificent they are as athletes. 


I currently live in San Jose, CA, and when not following racing, I like to spend time with my wife, mountain bike, and design high-speed bicycles that I build and race For reference, 55,000 furlongs is the distance from Hong Kong to my home in San Jose. Also, I have 1-year-old dachshund (aka wiener dog) that I am training to race in the annual Wiener Nationals held at Golden Gate Fields.   


The purpose of this blog is to help give people the viewpoint of a fan that is newer to the sport and eager to learn. I like to respectfully speak my mind, and often the ideas come out of left field, which could give a fresh perspective on a sport rich with tradition and history. hope to represent the many future fans that I wish to follow my footsteps into the Sport of Kings. 

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