Commentary: Dirt Racing's Demise?

<i>By Tanya Gunther</i> - It is impossible to put my head in the sand and ignore the demise of dirt racing’s dramatic impact on the sport.

By Tanya Gunther

Although I am generally reluctant to bring my views into the fray directly, I believe it is timely to do so now as a young person in the sport, a representative of the next generation of fans, and a voice seldom heard.

I felt compelled to speak out after my dad, John Gunther, provided to me, with a flourish of pent-up emotion, John Sikura’s letter in The Blood-Horse. He proceeded to tell me how he ran through a red light just thinking about it: the “it” being the swift switch to synthetic surfaces by several North American tracks. He seems almost heartbroken by the looming death of dirt racing. He can’t imagine a Triple Crown on synthetic surfaces. Would it even come close to the euphoria he experienced at having a horse in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) on two momentous occasions? Was the 30-plus years of pouring his heart into studying pedigrees, catalogs, and Daily Racing Forms all for nothing?

My father is a dedicated patron of the industry. He breeds, buys and sells, races, and bets. From foal on the ground to yearling in the sale ring to a hopeful wager as his horse bounces to the starting gate, my dad is there with every ounce of enthusiasm. His labor of love, Glennwood Farm, stands proudly in Woodford County, Ky. The farm’s rolling bluegrass fields are graced by a band of broodmares and foals, expanded carefully over the years with an eye to breeding for stamina, speed, and the elusive heart of a champion.

As a child, I frequently joined my father to watch the morning gallops and attended the races as part of a typical family weekend event. I read pedigrees avidly and knew even then that Princequillo and Nasrullah were important names to look for in generations back. Recently, I have become actively (as opposed to vicariously through the pursuits of my father and his friends) involved in the business. Yet, as the Keeneland September sale approaches, I wonder whether it is really that important for me to continue “learning the ropes” from my father as I had planned.

It is impossible to put my head in the sand and ignore the demise of dirt racing’s dramatic impact on the sport. Will breeders get disillusioned and see their aim of trying to breed the next Triple Crown winner as futile? Who will pay $300,000 for a cover by A.P. Indy in hopes of another Rags to Riches story? Will the handle (our daily bread) decline apace as the analysis of the racing form proves unhelpful in selecting winners?

As Frank Stronach stated in his interview in the Jan. 6 issue of The Blood-Horse: “I will go out of my way to have a safe racetrack no matter what it is made of. But I’m a little skeptical. I’m not sure synthetic surfaces are the answer. The materials seem to fluctuate with the sun, with cold, with rain. You can’t completely control it. I think sand and dirt have been proven over thousands of years, and are a more natural footing…” We all want fewer injuries—this is not the question. How is this objective best achieved within the overarching goal of a healthy industry?

To allay my fears, I tell myself these decisions are being made based on well-­researched analysis of the alternatives and the long-term ramifications to the sport, rather than on the fashion of the times, selected successes, and business politics. I would be relieved to see an objective evaluation of the issues, taking into account the views of industry veterans and supported by intelligent numerical analysis. This assessment would include: a comparison of superior dirt surfaces such as the one at Gulfstream Park versus synthetic surfaces; an analysis of how the comparison would stack up if the same funds being used for synthetic surfaces were put into improving dirt surfaces; and a discussion of the anticipated long-term impact on the industry.

Despite my somber tone, for now my concerns will be suppressed as I strive to live in the moment. This summer I have watched the horses run at historic Saratoga, their hooves flying across the dirt. Can you hear the bugle call?

Tanya Gunther is an owner/breeder and London-based investment banker.