Getting Real About Synthetics
Horses less than 10-1 to finish out of the superfecta at last year's Breeders' Cup
Plonk's Take: Exactly which proven dirt horses didn't show up again? Fabulous Strike was the fourth wagering choice and ran fifth in the Sprint, being the closest thing to a dirt horse who misfired at last year's Cup. Munnings has turned out to be a pure sprinter, and Casino Drive had just won his local prep over the same surface before floundering. By comparison, 18 horses at odds less than 10-1 finished out of the superfecta in the 2007 Breeders' Cup on the sloppy dirt at Monmouth, and that even was with one fewer main track race (no Marathon offered). There were 11 such efforts in the 2006 Breeders' Cup with only 5 main-track races vs. 8 last year.
Despite being away three months, Rachel Alexandra returned to the races with a smashing, three-length victory. It marked the first blowout of her young, four-race career and she stopped the clock in a sparkling time of 1:09-3/5, especially for a 2-year-old filly.
Oh, and by the way, that win came over a synthetic surface at Keeneland. Specifically, Polytrack.
Speaking with the media this week on an NTRA conference call leading up to the Mother Goose, Rachel Alexandra's new co-owner, the widely acclaimed "sportsman" Jess Jackson, said that his star filly definitively would not race in the fall's Breeders' Cup World Championships in any race, specifically because of the all-weather surface at Santa Anita (named Pro-Ride).
"I just don't want to risk her," Jackson reasoned. "You may not think it's a risk, but I saw what Curlin did and how he struggled, and I saw four or five other horses that raced on plastic and they struggled. If it's a dirt horse, it's a dirt horse."
Had Rachel Alexandra never raced on the "plastics," as Jackson derogatorily refers to all-weather surfaces in general, one might put credence in his comments. Had Rachel raced on the "plastics" and run poorly, one would definitely nod in agreement with Jackson -- no questions asked.
But Rachel Alexandra has run on the all-weather surface, and run phenomenally well. She dusted a very good filly named Argyle Pink, a half-sister to champion sprinter Smoke Glacken, and herself the eventual third-place finisher in the Grade 2 Matron Stakes back on dirt at Belmont. In fact, Rachel Alexandra blew away Argyle Pink at her rival's best game, sprinting, and did so over a neutral surface, since both fillies previously had experienced only dirt tracks.
Jackson cites Curlin's poor performance in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, a fourth-place run that ended his otherwise brilliant career, as nothing more than a synthetic track aberration. Considering it was his only run ever on the all-weather footing, an anecdotal summation might conclude such a result as fact. But I don't buy that one bit.
In his two previous starts leading up to the Breeders' Cup Classic last fall, Curlin had beaten the unheralded pair of Wanderin Boy and Past The Point by a grand total of two lengths in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Neither rival will ever be confused with anything more than a solid Grade 2-level handicap runner with some Grade 1 fringe ability. Nice horses, but no Curlins. Both of those victories also came at equal weights, 126 pounds, so the argument that Curlin was handicapped by his dominance does not apply. Previously, and despite a perfect trip, Curlin also dropped a two-length decision on turf to Red Rocks in the Man o' War, while racing all-out to hold off 9-year-old turfer Better Talk Now by a half-length for the place money.
The Curlin who entered last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic was nowhere near on the same par with the one who rolled a fantastic crew the previous year (Street Sense, Hard Spun et al). That's no knock on Curlin. The world's best horse steamrolled the Dubai World Cup and Stephen Foster Handicap by 12 combined lengths earlier in 2008 and beat superb fields in both. But his form was heading south, and he was beating non-descript prep fields in non-descript manners.
Curlin's 2008 Classic performance on the Pro-Ride has absolutely nothing to do with Rachel Alexandra, though the guess here is that Jackson's adamant grandstanding about being anti-synthetic surface could be more rooted in political gesturing than the filly's relative chances to win a race over the surface.
Jackson proudly takes on big issues in racing, going to Congress last year and pleading with the federal government to help save the racing industry. He took on the entire sales industry with court action when he desired to right wrongs. But his repeated public statements against all-weather surfaces, and keeping a top-class horse from an event held over those type of surfaces, appears an obvious ploy to fashion change in some regard.
As someone who holds the stud cards to Curlin, whom Jackson openly remarked had despised the all-weather surface as a racehorse, you can see where and why Jackson might want the nation's biggest tracks to return to traditional dirt. If Curlin's babies don't take to the "plastics" either, he could lose some appeal with breeders. Also consider this: If Rachel Alexandra were to compete in the Breeders' Cup and win, it might also deflate some of the greatness of Curlin, showing that legendary horses can indeed win when they are out of their comfort zone. Keep in mind, it's not about the money with Jackson; it's about legacy and leaving a lasting imprint. Not running Rachel back on an all-weather track could actually protect Curlin's legacy.
For Jackson to talk "risk" as the reason not to run Rachel Alexandra in the Breeders' Cup just does not jive with his past actions or speech.
Jackson is the same guy who once was publicly willing to put the best horse in the world, Curlin, on a plane to France, clear quarantine, and run in the 1-1/2 miles Arc de Triomphe against the world's best turf horses, yet now says flying to California to run over an all-weather surface is too risky? Curlin spent more than a month at Nad al Sheba in the desert of Dubai, and even got an unprecedented local prep for the $6 million Dubai World Cup in a non-descript $175,000 listed stakes called the Jaguar Trophy.
Making splashes on and off the track is what has defined Jackson since he entered the racing limelight in the spring of 2007, going from a relative no-name outside of the auction ring to buying part of Curlin on Super Bowl Sunday and turning him into this country's richest racehorse of all-time at more than $10 million earned.
It's the sizzle, not the steak, that somehow propels a guy whose Stonestreet Stables has won a grand total of nine races this year to be named 2009's most influential and powerful leader in all of racing by Thoroughbred Times earlier this month. More powerful than Sheikh Mohammad, more influential than Frank Stronach, whose two handfuls of racetracks owned hang in peril and could completely reface the industry landscape depending on what bankruptcy courts decide. Jackson the most influential and powerful? Really? Quick, name two horses Jackson owned before Curlin and Rachel Alexandra. I can come up with one, Tiz Wonderful -- and I eat, breathe and drink the game.
Please, I'm not buying into all this pomp and hoopla.
Jackson's right when he says that there's one reason Rachel Alexandra won't be at the Breeders' Cup, but it's not the surface.
Her name is Zenyatta.
I'd really love to be proven wrong. C'mon, Mr. Sportsman, bring her west. And since no one bothered to read Rachel Alexandra's past performances before declaring that she's only a dirt horse and may not like the "plastics," I'll do you a favor and give you the conditions of the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic: Three-year-olds, 119 lbs.; Older, 123 lbs.
Zenyatta even has to spot you four pounds at 1-1/8 miles.
If Jackson can prep Curlin for $175,000 in Dubai to see if he'll handle a 7,000-mile road trip, surely he could lower Rachel Alexandra to run in the Grade 1 $250,000 Lady's Secret at Santa Anita on Oct. 10 to see if she still remembers how to win on the "plastics."
Truth be told, we could have Rachel vs. Zenyatta twice if anyone really wanted it.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the managing partner of the handicapping-based website Horseplayerpro.com. You can e-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.