By Ray Paulick
Racing fans have read the superlatives or come up with their own adjectives in the wake of super filly Rachel Alexandraâ€™s dominating victory over a very good field of 3-year-old colts at New Jerseyâ€™s Monmouth Park in Sundayâ€™s Grade 1 Haskell Invitational, her eighth consecutive victory. Theyâ€™ve also heard the declaration by majority owner Jess Jackson that he has no intention of running the daughter of Medaglia dâ€™Oro in the 2009 Breedersâ€™ Cup, because the eventâ€™s traditional â€œdirtâ€ races are being held for the second year in a row on the Pro-Ride synthetic surface at Santa Anita Park in Southern California.These are heady days for Jackson, who has his sights on a third consecutive Horse of the Year crown, following Curlinâ€™s titles in 2007 and â€™08. Jackson blames Curlinâ€™s fourth-place finish in the 2008 Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic on the track that he calls â€œplastic,â€ and itâ€™s harbored within him a grudge against the synthetic surfaces that the California winemaker just wonâ€™t let go of. The defeat didnâ€™t cost Curlin the second of his two Horse of the Year titlesâ€”heâ€™d done enough earlier in the year to warrant the awardâ€”but Jackson remains convinced that it was the track surface alone that forced the son of Smart Strike to ride off into the sunset of his outstanding career with a stinging defeat.
In truth, Curlinâ€™s performance level was in decline when he came to the Breedersâ€™ Cup. The trip to Dubai for the World Cup has taken a toll on many winners, from inaugural hero Cigar, who wasnâ€™t quite as invincible after his victory there in 1996, to Well Armed, the 2009 victor who finished last in Sundayâ€™s San Diego Handicap at Del Mar, his first start since his record-setting 14-length World Cup win.
Yet Jackson ignores the fact that Curlin was hard-pressed to beat Past the Point and Wanderin Boy–two horses who had never been in his classâ€”in his final two starts before the 2008 Classic, the Woodward at Saratoga and Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. And Robbie Albarado, a fine rider who fit Curlin well, rode him like a 1-9 shot at Santa Anita, as if he were up against a field of allowance horses or minor stakes winners. Given the circumstances of Curlinâ€™s demanding campaign, the overconfident way he was ridden, and the quality of the international field he was facing in the Classic, there should have been no disgrace in defeat. Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen chose to make the synthetic track the scapegoat, however, and they havenâ€™t let up since.
Anyone whoâ€™s had their hands on a good horse, much less an extraordinary one like Rachel Alexandra, knows it presumptuous to point for a race too far into the future, but thatâ€™s what Jackson is doing. Heâ€™s trying to dodge criticism from ducking this yearâ€™s event by saying heâ€™ll run Rachel Alexandra in the 2010 Breedersâ€™ Cup at Churchill Downs on a conventional dirt track. Everyone hopes she stays healthy and sound for that long, but, realistically, what are the chances of that happening? Distant, I would think, especially if she continues to race on conventional dirt tracks that have been sealed in advance of rain, as Monmouthâ€™s was on Sunday for the Haskell. Much as Jackson disparages synthetics, I would think heâ€™s been around this game long enough to know that a sloppy, muddy or sealed racetrack is probably the most dangerous on which a horse can race or train.
Iâ€™m not here to defend synthetic surfaces. They have their detractors and defenders among people who know more about them than I do. Perhaps some horses do not race on synthetics as well as they do on a conventional dirt track. All synthetic tracks are not alike, either, and how they are maintained can be a critical factor in their ability to provide a safe racing surface. The debate over perceived difficulties in handicapping races on these surfaces is a completely separate issue. The idea behind synthetics, first and foremost, is to promote safety for horses and riders. Their use should begin and end on that subject alone. The installation of synthetics was done with what may have been a false sense of urgency. In hindsight, it would have been better to conduct research and compile data on their impact on musculoskeletal injuries.
Breedersâ€™ Cup officials had their reasons for holding the event at Santa Anita in consecutive years, and I think that decision was a mistake that will not be repeatedâ€”unless either Churchill Downs or Keeneland become the permanent site for the championships (an unlikely move, at least in the near future). Having said that, though, the competition at last yearâ€™s two-day event was outstanding and, for the most part, formful.
Jackson doesnâ€™t owe the fans anything. Heâ€™s put up his money and can do whatever he chooses with his horses. But for him to boycott the 2009 Breedersâ€™ Cup with the sportâ€™s biggest star, despite evidence that Rachel Alexandra has performed well on synthetics over Keenelandâ€™s Polytrack, reminds me of the spoiled kid who didnâ€™t like the way a game was going and decided to take his ball and go home.
Copyright Â© 2009, The Paulick Report
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