If you’re a sports fan with some gray hairs, you’ll remember the glory days of boxing in the late 1960s and 1970s. Back then, you had George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes and Muhammed Ali routinely battling for heavyweight supremacy. It was a simpler time with one division for each weight class. Soon, the alphabet soup parade began. Instead of having the Heavyweight Champion of the World, you had the WBC champion, the WBA champion, then the IBF, WBO and NABF champions. You couldn’t tell one division from another; couldn’t determine which title was more coveted or prestigious and the result was that boxing faded and became a niche sport.
In many ways, horse racing is a lot like boxing as each state has its own rules, regulations and standards. As we know, Lasix is allowed in New York, but not Kentucky and that’s just one example. There is no national governing body like there is for football, baseball and individual sports like tennis, golf and track and field, so at times, the sport can run amok.
In fairness, horse racing does vary from state to state, but with PETA having more fuel than ever in the wake of the allegations against Steve Asmussen, wouldn’t now be a good time to have some sort of summit to try to make the sport better for the future? The NTRA does exist, but its power is much like that of the English royal family, ceremonial at best. Horse racing elicits many opinions and feelings. There are those who love the sport, those who like it, those who ignore, those who hate it and those who think it should be abolished. That varies more than any other sport. There are people who hate baseball, who wouldn’t watch a game for any reason, but my bet is those people wouldn’t want the sport banned. PETA wants the sport banned, and they make no secret of that fact. The safest bet of Kentucky Derby week is that PETA will have a very strong presence at Churchill Downs and their contingent will be strong.
In addition to the Asmussesn saga, is the recent announcement by Keeneland that it will dig up its Polytrack surface and go back to dirt in time for the Fall 2014 meet. Their reasons are sound because they’re economical ones. Simply, they want better horses to come there and race. The Blue Grass Stakes, a premier Kentucky Derby prep race, has lost a lot of luster because it has been run on Polytrack, and since 2006 when Polytrack was installed; no Blue Grass winner has won the Kentucky Derby. There is a trickle down effect there as well. Blue Grass Day is a big day at Keeneland. Not only is the Blue Grass Stakes on the card, but the racing card is surrounded by other stakes races in an effort to draw big horses, big trainers and big owners, but if those people don’t like Polytrack, they’re not coming.
Polytrack has been an enigma from its inception. It’s artificial turf if you will. It’s a composite surface that is made of rubber and a whole bunch of other things. It reminds me of the 1970s when many football and baseball stadiums replaced natural grass with carpet they called astro turf. When I think of that era, I always reference the Miami Orange Bowl. The Orange Bowl hosted many Super Bowls in the 1960s and 1970s and those games were played on grass, astro turf and then grass again. Dick Allen, the former American League MVP had a great line about astro turf when he said, “If my horse can’t eat it, I ain’t playing on it.” Former Phillies pitcher was once asked to give his thoughts comparing astro turf and grass and said, “I don’t know, I never smoked astro turf.”
Astro turf eventually was replaced by grass and then what they call field turf, which looks like grass but is artificial and supposedly safer. But, anytime something is created in a laboratory, you never know what the chemicals can do to humans, horses and the like. Sports and science will always evolve and for the most part, that’s a good thing, but the Polytrack era is mystifying.
Statistics show that there have been fewer fatalities per thousand on Polytrack than on dirt surfaces. So, on that issue, you’d have to give a nod to Polytrack. California passed a law that dictated that all race tracks in the state switch to Polytrack. The big three at the time—Santa Anita, Del Mar and Hollywood Park—all did so. Fatalities decreased, but so did the quality of the racing as the tracks failed to attract the big names for its marquee events. The Breeder’s Cup, as much as it loves Santa Anita, didn’t want to hold the event on a Polytrack surface. As a result, the California state legislature relented and relaxed the law and Santa Anita and Del Mar tore up the Polytrack and went back to dirt. The Breeder’s Cup returned and even though fatalities increased slightly, they increased and you know PETA has taken note.
Several big name tracks still use Polytrack and plan on keeping it. They include Woodbine near Toronto and Arlington Park in Illinois, but once again, it’s the inconsistency of the sport that drives one crazy. One thing is for certain and that’s the fact that Polytrack, like astro turf is on the decline and my hunch is that in time, it will be completely gone from racetracks across the country.
The funny thing is that I don’t think horsepeople hate Polytrack because it’s artificial; they hate it because they can’t figure it out. Did it favor speed? Did it hurt closers? Was it more like turf? Could a horse notice a difference? Could a horse go from Polytrack to turf better than Polytrack to dirt? Could a horse go from dirt to Polytrack or turf to Polytrack? How did training on Polytrack affect the horse when he or she had to race on dirt? Was the fact that the Blue Grass winner couldn’t win at Louisville just a coincidence or was it related to Polytrack? These questions baffled trainers and owners to the point where they wanted to get away from Polytrack altogether. New York based Nick Zito never liked Polytrack from the beginning and he was not alone. If Polytrack ran just like dirt, then Polytrack would survive, but that never happened and once the California tracks abandoned the Polytrack experiment, a domino effect was the result.
For the record, I don’t hate Polytrack, but I knew from the start that this controversy would not go away unless every dirt track switched over. Had that happened, then horses would have trained appropriately. Tennis courts are uniform, so are tracks and basketball courts and football fields. You train the same for the same conditions, but horse racing couldn’t do that. Polytrack was supposed to be like dirt, but it wasn’t. In fact, the Canadian Triple Crown boasted that it’s run on three different surfaces: Polytrack, Dirt and Turf (side note: with the impending closure of Fort Erie Race Track, the dirt jewel might be gone). Polytrack wanted to mirror dirt, not differ greatly from it.
In the end, Keeneland is a business and businesses need to make money. Were they losing money with Polytrack? They probably weren’t, but they can probably make more with the return of dirt. The Blue Grass Stakes should get some of its mojo back. If you’re a Kentucky bred horse, why leave Lexington for New York when the Kentucky Derby is in close proximity? You might see more California breds ship to Lexington for the Blue Grass/Kentucky Derby double? That wasn’t happening with the Polytrack surface and that’s the impetus for the switch.
All that said, the negative is once again, horse racing couldn’t get its act together. They could have done the research and made a decision that would benefit the sport. It should have been an all-in or all-out situation. We’re all going to Polytrack or none of us are. Instead, you get the famous splintering. Some did, some didn’t, some did, then changed back. It confused owners, jockeys, trainers and most importantly, the revenue generators we call bettors.
Thankfully, the horses remain the stars of the sport. I’d love to know their opinions on Polytrack versus dirt, but unfortunately, they’re not talking.