What a difference a year makes! Last April, Sinister Minister took advantage of a Keeneland dirt track notorious for favoring inside speed horses and laughed his way to a 12 3/4-length upset of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I).
Twelve months later, Dominican, an El Corredor gelding who already had shown an affinity for Keeneland and Turfway Park’s synthetic Polytrack surfaces, emerged as the Blue Grass victor, winning in a four-horse photo finish after a dramatic stretch run.
The difference, in a word, is Polytrack.
In 2006, Sinister Minister went his opening half-mile in :45.88 and six furlongs in 1:09.94 before stopping the clock for 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.85. In the 2007 Blue Grass, early fractions of :51.46 and 1:16.65 were set by Teuflesberg, who hung around as the fourth horse in the photo finish. Final time was 1:51.33.
Conventional wisdom suggests front-running horses have a huge advantage if they are allowed to set the tortoise-like fractions established in this year’s Blue Grass. But Polytrack has thrown conventional wisdom out the window.
That may not be such a bad thing.
American racing has long put its emphasis on speed—especially early speed. Prices for 2-year-olds in training sold at public auction are driven largely by how quickly a young horse can stop the timer for one or two furlongs. Polytrack, at least Keeneland’s version, puts far more emphasis on late speed.
Last year, Sinister Minister covered the final three furlongs in 39.91 seconds after his blazing early fractions. Dominican raced his final three furlongs in just over 34 seconds.
Most races on Keeneland’s Polytrack resemble European grass races in how they are run, with the winner often being the horse making the last surge. That was the case in the Blue Grass, with last year’s 2-year-old male champion, Street Sense, getting nosed out in the final jump after rallying to the lead in the shadow of the wire.
A year ago, getting to the early lead and racing along the rail were key factors for winning at Keeneland. Now, no one seems to want to go the front, because it has become extremely difficult to win on the lead over Keeneland’s Polytrack. Racing wide is fine now, too.
Dominican is unbeaten in three starts on Polytrack after breaking his maiden at Keeneland last October and winning the Rushaway Stakes on Turfway Park’s Polytrack surface in March. He is 0-for-4 on conventional dirt tracks.
Sinister Minister went on to race in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), finishing 16th, beaten 30 lengths by Barbaro. He is still looking for his first victory since his romp in the Blue Grass. Bluegrass Cat, fourth as the favorite behind Sinister Minister that day, subsequently finished second in the Derby, Belmont Stakes (gr. I), and Travers Stakes (gr. I), and won the Haskell Invitational Stakes (gr. I).
It is possible, as Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher said in remarks to the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers’ Club April 11, that Keeneland has replaced one track bias with another.
But Pletcher, along with other horsemen, has acknowledged the benefits of Polytrack and other synthetic surfaces for training purposes. "In a perfect world, I guess, I’d like to see the opportunity to train on Polytrack and still race on the traditional dirt surface," Pletcher said.
To that end, Pletcher is one of several trainers who will condition his Kentucky Derby prospects on Polytrack rather than shipping them to Churchill Downs early to allow the horses to get accustomed to that surface. What message will a backstretch void of Derby contenders send to Churchill’s management?
Is it possible the 2007 renewal will be the final Kentucky Derby run on dirt?