It's difficult to get away from talk of synthetic surfaces, whether it concerns racing in North America, Asia, Europe, or Dubai.
At this year's Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs Nov. 4, a prominent European horseman said surfaces such as Polytrack would provide a "level playing field" for horses from around the globe, making the races truer world championships in which horses are not eliminated because they are racing on a surface new to them.
In Tokyo, at this year's Japan Cup weekend program Nov. 25-26, a number of Japan Racing Association officials linked the absence of international horses for the Japan Cup Dirt (Jpn-I) to the sandy surface that most non-Japanese runners have not adapted to well in past years. "Polytrack may be the answer," more than one said.
Indeed, the JRA is planning to install a Polytrack surface on one of its dirt tracks at the Miho Training Center north of Tokyo. Miho is the largest of the two JRA training centers. Installation is scheduled for October 2007. Officials will study the performance of the surface throughout the year and decide whether or not to use Polytrack, or a similar product, for racing at Tokyo Race Course and other JRA tracks. One of the biggest questions about synthetic surfaces has been how they hold up in extreme conditions. Woodbine near Toronto experienced recent problems with Polytrack during cold weather, and Hollywood Park had difficulty maintaining consistency with its Cushion Track surface recently when nighttime temperatures dropped in Southern California.
Louis Romanet, the chairman of France-Galop, said synthetic surfaces are being considered at both Longchamp and Chantilly to add variety to racing programs and give the organization the ability to extend the season into winter months. An all-weather training track already is in place at Chantilly.
In Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed has elected to have Michael Dickinson's Tapeta Footings laid at the Al Quoz training center. That gives horses in Dubai an opportunity to train over a surface similar to what is being installed at a growing number of North American venues. Keeneland, Turfway Park, and Woodbine all have Polytrack, and Del Mar recently announced it will install Polytrack next year. Hollywood Park has the aforementioned Cushion Track, and Golden Gate Fields will use Tapeta.
The primary reason for synthetic racetrack materials is safety -- for both horses and riders. Preliminary statistics suggest there are far fewer injuries from racing and training over synthetic surfaces as opposed to traditional dirt tracks. In addition, both domestic and international racing are served if the surfaces over which horses run are similar. It may force bettors and handicappers to adjust their strategies, since inside/outside track biases may be eliminated, but one of the sport's oldest excuses -- "he just didn't handle the track" -- may be thrown out the window, too.GLOBAL ISSUES
JRA officials were disappointed over the lack of participation by American horses in this year's Japan Cup (Jpn-I) and Japan Cup Dirt, and began a dialog in Tokyo with interim Breeders' Cup chief executive Greg Avioli about how the two organizations can work together.
It's been no secret that the Breeders' Cup would like to tap into the vast Japanese betting market. Currently, that is impossible because of a law prohibiting wagering on any races outside of Japan. To date, there has not been that much interest among Japanese fans in the Breeders' Cup because of limited participation of horses from Japan.
In the future, however, if a Japanese star races in the Breeders' Cup, fan interest would increase significantly, just as it did in this year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe Lucien Barriere (Fr-I) when Japanese Horse of the Year Deep Impact competed. Thousands of fans traveled to France to see the race, and 21.6 million Japanese tuned in to the midnight telecast.
That kind of international interest can further strengthen the future of the Breeders' Cup.