The 6th Repeat Eclipse HOTY Winner Carries an Asterisk
Racing over Polytrack, Cushion Track, Tapeta, etc. is quite a different sport than racing over dirt, therefore it should ‘deserve’ it s own category, at the very least lump them all in with ‘turf’. I will soon show you why, but first a brief summary of the 6 repeat Eclipse HOTY winners:
Horse Years dirt starts/year
Secretariat 72-73 10.5
Forego 74-76 10
Affirmed 78-79 10
Cigar 95-96 9
Curlin 07-08 7
Wise Dan 13-14 0.5
Thoroughbred racing over dirt is more taxing than racing over synthetics and/or turf. Surely turf track conditions can differ greatly, but regardless the pace scenarios are more physiologically friendly. Wise Dan’s BC Turf mile saw him cover the first half in roughly 45.5 sec, whereas Goldencents went a full second quicker in the Dirt version that day at Santa Anita.
That BLEEDS (pun intended) into my next point: the pace of dirt races (with more early speed) is more taxing than races on synthetics. Let’s say you could stop a horse mid-race after the first 4F on dirt vs Polytrack and draw blood for analysis; this is what you would likely see in terms of blood lactate levels:
Dirt runner: blood lactate level of 10 mmol/liter
Poly runner: blood lactate level of 8 mmol/liter
(Blood lactate levels are a common measure of exercise intensity. For reference’s sake horses walking exhibit levels around 1.0. A stakes horse galloping at 30mph (15sec/f) may show a lactate level of 4.0. After a race that number will climb to over 20+.)
This is one reason why dirt horses coming down the stretch often shorten stride and decelerate towards the finish line; while many turf races show a quick ‘turn of foot’ and faster final sectional times.
I chart heart rates on both surfaces, paying special attention to recovery after breezes. A claiming horse going 4F on dirt in :50 will show a similar HR recovery to another claimer going 6F on synthetic in 1:15. Many trainers have noticed this and work horses 1-2F further on the artificial surfaces.
Don’t believe me, how about a guy from M.I.T?
“Horses working on the Tapeta™ surface will experience one-half the impact as compared to horses working on a conventional surface.”
How about an exercise rider for Zenyatta?
“She’s terrific,” added Willard. “She couldn’t be training any better. She loves the dirt. She drives off it. It doesn’t have the trampoline effect like the synthetics.”
Take yourself down the road to your local high school track, as many these days are high quality rubber surfaces, rather than the cinders of my HS times. If you are have old bones like mine; a 400m lap in 1:30 over a nice cushy track feels much easier on one’s body than the same distance/time on the concrete street in front of your house, as judged by the next morning’s soreness. You simply recover more quickly from the ‘synthetic’ effort.
Now, in Wise Dan’s defense – he may very well be the best at what he does: going a mile on the grass, and the dirt runners this year didn’t exactly set themselves up for the award season this time around. Mucho Macho man made only 5 starts, winning 2 and pulling up in 1. Goldencents came out of his BC Dirt Mile win and was routed in his next start in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct. However, our other repeat Horse of the Year winners throughout history did not enjoy the luxury of a season of less physiologically taxing races on synthetics – instead they came into season-ending races off of several previous dirt efforts.
Similarly, I don’t mean to come off as a hater of artificial surfaces. Most data shows they have cut catastrophic injury rates as much as 25%, perhaps at the expense of statistically more soft tissue injuries, but good luck finding anyone willing to quantify those numbers. At least the injured horse survives. So the technology has some positive benefits.
Like it or not, there are only 2 true natural surfaces for horses to run over: dirt and turf. America runs its classics on the former, and shouldn’t give its largest award to runners who specialize over the latter. So, don’t compare the top performers of today to the ones of the past because they just don’t make ‘em like they used to; neither tracks nor horses.