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The First Synthetic Breeders’ Cup: Background & Controversy (Part 1)

Posted October 27, 2008 4:59 PM by SavvyExacta

Over the weekend, horse racing fans were glued to their televisions as the Breeders' Cup World Championships celebrated its 25th anniversary. New this year was a synthetic surface, making the 2008 event of particular interest – although it is always a highly anticipated end to the racing calendar.

Breeder's Cup Background

John Gaines, a leading owner and breeder of Thoroughbreds, came up with the idea of the Breeders' Cup just over a quarter of a century ago. His goal was to promote both the Thoroughbred and the racing industry. Held at a different track each year, the Breeders' Cup has become the equivalent of the Super Bowl or the Olympics of horse racing. There is a different race for each division: Sprint, Turf, Juvenile, Classic, etc. Horses must be nominated at birth, qualify, or be supplemented at a huge fee. Recently, racing has been expanded to fill two days of championship competition.

Tracks are selected years in advance and must take advantage of that time to plan for huge crowds, international competitors, and lots of television coverage (similar to the craze of the Kentucky Derby). For example, last year, Monmouth Park in New Jersey spent over $30 million renovating its facilities.

Synthetic Controversy

Last spring, I wrote about the dangers of horse racing, the pros and cons of synthetic surfaces on racetracks, and their safety value. California actually passed legislation to make synthetic tracks mandatory at that state's Thoroughbred venues.

Santa Anita, the location of this year's Breeders' Cup, installed a synthetic surface, but still had major issues - including water runoff - with its surface last winter. The track was forced to replace its original synthetic surface with another brand in preparation for hosting this year's Breeders' Cup. (Santa Anita will host next year's event, too). Problems with the original synthetic surface caused a group of trainers and other horsemen to wonder if the switch was worth it – both in terms of cost and safety.

Another concern is bias. Many horses run differently on synthetic tracks than on "conventional" dirt. Big Brown, this year's Kentucky Derby winner (on dirt), had been training on grass, which is supposedly more similar to synthetic material than is dirt. (Big Brown was retired in the weeks leading up to the Breeders' Cup due to a hoof injury.) European horses stampeded to this year's races because they are quite comfortable on both grass and synthetic surfaces - therefore hoping to have an advantage.

Editor's Note: Check out Part 2 to learn more about the weekend's winners, whether the synthetic material showed a bias toward European or grass-favoring horses, and if it did indeed seem safer than plain old dirt.



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