Future breeders have sights set on synthetic sires

Jul 24, 2007 3:46 AM

Artificial insemination is banned in thoroughbred racing, so don’t look for a clone of Secretariat any time soon. The game is bent on tradition, and is content with dirt sires, turf sires, sprint sires and route sires, but just over the horizon are synthetic sires. No, not bogus stallions, but sires that raced successfully on synthetic surfaces. In fact, the future may already be here.

"Eventually, there will be Polybreeds, horses bred to run on synthetic surfaces, you watch," said East Coast-based trainer Ronny Werner, a second-generation horseman, who like Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert, started his career with quarter horses. "The way tracks are turning to synthetic surfaces, breeders will want to get ahead of the game and look for sires that ran well on those surfaces. I think that’s already started."

That may be true, but while synthetic surfaces seem to be dealt with in copious fashion, upon further review, some horsemen are in limbo. Trainers Todd Pletcher and Richard Dutrow Jr., who earned their spurs on the East Coast, boldly moved Westward, ho, sending runners from their mega-stables to Hollywood Park once it installed Cushion Track. Whether other trainers will follow and replenish the recycled runners west of Arizona remains to be seen. But don’t hold your breath. Rosie O’Donnell could endorse a Republican for President before that happens.

"We won’t know until we get the synthetic surfaces figured out," said the 43-year-old Werner, a Texas native who maintains a strong presence in Kentucky and Illinois. He brought Ermine to Santa Anita last winter where she dropped a heart-breaking nose decision to Balance in the Santa Margarita Handicap. On April 7, Ermine captured her first Grade I race, the Apple Blossom, at Oaklawn Park.

"Todd and I talked about it when he was at Keeneland, but the jury’s still out," Werner said when asked if more stables would ship east to west. "There have been some soft tissue problems (on synthetic surfaces), so we don’t know if horses are going to withstand extended racing on the new surfaces.

"As far as bones, like ankles and knees, and joints, the synthetic surfaces look to be real forgiving. I’ve got a string of horses at Arlington (Polytrack) with those types of injuries, and they sure seem to be getting better. But as we figure it out, I don’t think synthetic surfaces on the West Coast will change the national picture a whole lot, but who knows? It may have us coming out to California more, but right now, as far as I’m concerned, that’s not in my plans. Everybody is on hold. It’s going to take a year or two."

Jeff Mullins, who finished with a rush to tie Doug O’Neill for the training title at the recent Hollywood meet, already is on record as taking a wait-and-see approach on Del Mar’s Polytrack, allowing as to how that brand seems to play differently at every venue where it’s been implemented, such as Turfway Park, Keeneland and Arlington. Werner concurs with Mullins’ assessment.

"I think he’s 100 percent right," Werner said. "I’ve run at Turfway, Keeneland and Arlington. The horses just ground it out at Turfway, and I thought that was terrible. I was afraid that was how it was going to play all the time, and I don’t like any track that’s bias. Any trainer will tell you that. You’re going to have some horses with speed and some that like to come from off the pace. You’ll have horses with a variety of running styles and you want each one to have a fair opportunity to win, and not worry about a track bias.

"On Turfway’s Polytrack, horses grind out victories from off the pace and are ridden the entire race. Keeneland also favored come-from-behind horses. Speed didn’t seem to hold there, so I wasn’t pleased with that Polytrack. But I have horses now at Arlington and I love that Polytrack, because I’ve had horses win from every spot you can imagine. I’d like to see all the synthetic surfaces play as fair as Arlington."

Ditto for the bettors.

"They have more confidence when they know the track is playing fair," Werner said. "They were having problems at Turfway and Keeneland. Synthetic surfaces are unique. They’re plastic. Grass is grass, dirt is dirt and plastic is plastic."

The homestretch

Werner plans to run Ermine in the Grade I Go for Wand Handicap at Saratoga on Saturday "if things work out."

”¡ Mike Mitchell’s horses are making their Polytrack debut at Del Mar. "I’ve never been on Polytrack before," said Mitchell, who saddled former claimer Sun Bolt to win the Grade II San Diego Handicap (next up: the Pacific Classic on Aug. 19). "I just know what I saw at Keeneland, where it seems like speed really dies on it. I think Del Mar’s Polytrack will be different from Hollywood’s Cushion Track, but going straight from Santa Anita to the Polytrack could be a disadvantage.

"I think horses coming from Hollywood, because it has a synthetic track, will have an edge at Del Mar over the Santa Anita horses. But I’m as new to Polytrack as anybody. I have to watch the races like everybody else to see how the track plays. I don’t think the ingredients on Cushion Track break down, like some people said, but it seems like wax collected on horses’ legs so wax and water had to be added to the track again. But as of right now, Hollywood is the best track I’ve ever trained on."

”¡ The investigation of NBA referee Tim Donaghy for allegedly betting on games that he refereed the last two years comes as no shock to me. I’ve taken the NBA with a grain of salt for decades, because any game that has 40-point swings within 48 hours by merely going from one home site to another; that depends on ancillaries for a sizeable portion of its profit margin; that has game-altering calls made on a subjective basis (who can tell the difference between a block or a charge, or whether a foul is committed or not?) is subject to avarice and temptation. It’s just human nature.

”¡ Phillies’ manager Charlie Manuel became a leading candidate for Mismanager of the Year after he illogically failed to pinch hit for 44-year-old pitcher Jamie Moyer with the bases loaded and the Phils trailing the Dodgers, 6-1, in the fourth inning last week. Moyer, who had given up 15 earned runs in his last 14 innings pitched, struck out on three pitches. How many times did Manuel expect the Phils to load the bases against Dodgers’ ace Brad Penny (11-1)? Manuel’s decision was almost as bad as Tony La Russa’s, who kept MVP Albert Pujols on the bench with the All-Star game on the line for the National League.