It's been 23 years since the Breeders' Cup was held at Woodbine in Toronto, Canada, the first and only time the world championships were conducted outside of the United States.
What I remember the most about that 1996 Breeders' Cup was Alphabet Soup's upset of Allen Paulson's Cigar in the Classic, with Chris McCarron guiding Georgia Ridder's gray son of Cozzene to the wire first for trainer David Hofmans in a three-horse driving finish. Cigar, whose 16-race winning streak for trainer Bill Mott ended three races earlier at Del Mar, still clinched his second Horse of the Year title despite finishing third behind Alphabet Soup and Louis Quatorze.
It was a splendid day of racing, back when the Breeders' Cup was a seven-race extravaganza held on a single afternoon.
Many of us who ventured to the Great White North that year came with some trepidation that we might need snowshoes and our heaviest winter-weather gear to get through a week in Toronto in late autumn. However, with sunny skies and a temperature of 60 degrees, that 1996 Breeders' Cup wound up third warmest of the 19 championship Saturdays held outside of California, Florida and Texas.
A great deal at Woodbine and in horse racing has changed since 1996.
Three years after hosting the Cup, a large chunk of Woodbine's grandstand was transitioned to a racino, with space allocated to slot machines. The track's main dirt surface was replaced by the synthetic Polytrack in 2006, and that was replaced in 2016 by Tapeta Footings, another synthetic material. Earlier this year, Woodbine christened a second turf course, inside the Tapeta oval, which itself is inside the 1 ½-mile E.P. Taylor turf course.
Woodbine currently is undergoing a CAN$1.5 billion development project, with a hotel, restaurants and a 5,000-seat music amphitheater under construction with a targeted completion date of 2022. More development is on the drawing board for the sprawling complex that includes five racing or training surfaces and a spacious stable area.
To my knowledge, Woodbine has never been in the running for a second Breeders' Cup despite having attributes that complement it as one of the best racing facilities in North America. Woodbine is located on the outskirts of a world-class city and is minutes away from an international airport. It's a safe and friendly city as well.
Jim Lawson, CEO of Woodbine Entertainment, said he considered the track's synthetic surfaces to be a disqualifier for hosting a Breeders' Cup since Santa Anita and Del Mar in California and Keeneland in Kentucky reversed field and replaced their synthetically engineered tracks with dirt, the surface on which American racing is best known.
Santa Anita – which joined Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Golden Gate Fields in following a 2006 mandate from the California Horse Racing Board to install synthetics after safety issues were first raised – hosted two Breeders' Cups during its synthetic era in 2008 and 2009. However, Frank Stronach, who then controlled his family's racetrack empire, called synthetic racetracks “voodoo” and replaced Santa Anita's surface with dirt in 2010. Del Mar and Keeneland would follow.
In fact, two months after Keeneland's April 2014 announcement that it was giving up on Polytrack and installing dirt as its main surface, the Breeders' Cup awarded the Lexington track its first-ever Breeders' Cup in 2015. Some have concluded the two events were related.
No one can dispute that synthetic surfaces produce fewer fatal injuries than dirt tracks. The proof is in the statistics, going back to 2009, collected for the The Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database. Woodbine's safety record, on its synthetic and turf surface, is among the best in North America.
Some trainers have said synthetics lead to increased incidence of soft-tissue or hind end injuries, but there is no science to confirm that. Many horseplayers complained that synthetic surfaces were more difficult to handicap.
Perhaps most significantly, some breeders and stallion farms were befuddled by the results of major races run over synthetic tracks, and they aren't alone. Races are run differently on synthetic tracks. Those breeders and stallion farms have a lot of clout in the industry in general and the Breeders' Cup in particular. They sent a pretty clear signal when Keeneland went back to dirt. But I have to wonder, given what racing has gone through this year, if the economics of breeding are more important than the survival of the sport.
The spike in fatalities at Santa Anita last winter has put racing under the microscope: in California, New York, Kentucky and elsewhere. Industry leaders say the tracks, horsemen and regulators are doing everything possible to minimize catastrophic injuries. But are they really?
As long as statistics show that synthetic tracks are safer than dirt, the statement that “we are doing everything possible” will ring hollow with the media and the public, and the microscope will only intensify.
Should a safe synthetic racetrack really be a disqualifier for hosting a Breeders' Cup? In my opinion, given the current climate, that should give a track like Woodbine a leg up on the competition.
That's my view from the eighth pole.
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