Blue Grass Stakes 2013: Synthetic To Dirt In The Derby

Mark Zerof-US PRESSWIRE

A look at the success (and failures) of horses exiting prep races on a synthetic surface in the Kentucky Derby since 2007.

Since the introduction of synthetic surfaces at Keeneland and Turfway Park about five to six years ago, and the short term use of a synthetic main track at Santa Anita, handicappers have been faced with the question of how to handle horses coming out of synthetic races in the Kentucky Derby. Some synthetic surfaces seem to favor turf runners more than others (Keeneland has typically fallen into that category), while some of the others simply favor horses that like the plastic, regardless of whether they run well on turf or not. There's really no hard or fast rule but, of course, there never is in horse racing.

Instead of any concrete guidelines, we simply have the results of "last race synthetic" horses in the Kentucky Derby since 2007 to examine. With the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes scheduled to run at Keeneland this Saturday, let's take a look at how runners in that race have fared in the Derby, and also take a bigger look at synthetic runners in the Derby, overall during that time frame.

For our first chart of the day, I've broken out the top three finishers in the Blue Grass since 2007 (the first synthetic year) and noted their finish in the Kentucky Derby (if they ran):

Year Win Derby Place Derby Show Derby
2012 Dullahan 3rd Hansen 9th Gung Ho DNS
2011 Brilliant Speed 7th Twinspired 17th King Congie DNS
2010 Stately Victor 8th Paddy O'Prado 3rd First Dude DNS
2009 General Quarters 10th Hold Me Back 12th Massone DNS
2008 Monba 20th Cowboy Cal 9th Kentucky Bear DNS
2007 Dominican 11th Street Sense 1st Zanjero 12th


Street Sense
is the only horse to come out of the Blue Grass since 2007 to win the Derby, with Dullahan and Paddy O'Prado the only others to even finish in the top 3 in Louisville. The rest of the Blue Grass cast has struggled mightily, although the winners have fared better at Churchill the last couple of years than they did the first three years after the Polytrack changeover. Whether that's due to a change in the maintenance or structure of the surface, or horsemen getting smarter about how to place their horses, is purely a guess.

Overall, the top 3 finishers in the Blue Grass are 13-1-0-2 in the Derby since 2007.

Okay, now let's take a big picture look at simply Derby horses exiting a synthetic race prior to the Derby (I also include one turf race in the chart. So sue me.) Below are the last out synthetic runners in the Derby since 2007, their finish in the Derby, and their final prep. (Any and all errors and/or omissions are mine.)

Year Horse Derby Final Prep
2012 Prospective 18th 6th in Blue Grass, KEE
2012 Went the Day Well 4th 1st in Spiral, TP
2011 Animal Kingdom 1st 1st in Spiral, TP
2011 Santiva 6th 9th in Blue Grass, KEE
2011 Derby Kitten 13th 1st in Lexington, KEE
2011 Decisive Moment 14th 2nd in Spiral, TP
2010 Make Music for Me 4th 6th in Blue Grass, KEE
2010 Dean's Kitten 14th 1st in Lane's End, KEE
2010 Lookin At Lucky 6th 3rd in SA Derby, SA
2010 Sidney's Candy 17th 1st in SA Derby, SA
2009 Join in the Dance 7th 5th in Blue Grass, KEE
2009 Advice 13th 1st in Lexington, KEE
2009 Pioneer of the Nile 2nd 1st in SA Derby, SA
2009 Chocolate Candy 5th 2nd in SA Derby, SA
2009 Mr. Hot Stuff 15th 3rd in SA Derby, SA
2008 Colonel John 6th 1st in SA Derby, SA
2008 Visionaire 12th 5th in Blue Grass, KEE
2008 Cool Coal Man 15th 9th in Blue Grass, KEE
2008 Big Truck 18th 11th in Blue Grass, KEE
2008 Bob Black Jack 16th 2nd in SA Derby, SA
2008 Pyro 8th 10th in Blue Grass, KEE
2008 Adriano 19th 1st in Spiral, TP
2007 Hard Spun 2nd 1st in Spiral, TP
2007 Sedgefield 5th 4th in Transylvania (turf), KEE
2007 Great Hunter 13th 5th in Blue Grass, KEE
2007 Teuflesberg 17th 4th in Blue Grass, KEE

Animal Kingdom joins Street Sense as the only horses to exit a synthetic prep and win the Derby (which means two last out synthetic horses have won the Derby in six years; not bad at all). We also see the introduction of the Santa Anita horses during the three year synthetic era in Arcadia. The Santa Anita Derby horses, while failing to win the Derby during that stretch, ran credibly, for the most part. Pioneer of the Nile finished 2nd in 2009, the top performance by an SA Derby horse during that period.

Overall, horses exiting a race on synthetic (and one turf race) are 39-2-1-2 since 2007. But while the "raw" numbers appear bad, here's another way to think about it: Since 2007, 33% of the Derby winners, 17% of the Place horses, and 33% of the Show horses ran their last race on synthetic prior to running at Churchill.

Is there a moral to the story? Personally, I tend to think of it this way:

  • If the horse is good enough, he'll run well in the Derby, regardless of where he ran his last race (and the works over the CD surface should give us some clues as to how the colt handles the ground). Street Sense was a good horse (and already proven on dirt); Animal Kingdom, although more of a dirt wild card, worked well at CD during Derby week; Dullahan ran well over the same Churchill Downs surface in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile the previous fall.

    I won't toss a horse just because it comes out of a synthetic race, but I'll definitely need to see clues, either in prior races or his works, that he can excel on dirt.
  • Second, (and perhaps most important) horses that don't race well in their final prep, whether on synthetic, turf, dirt or whatever, are poor bets to do well in the Derby. If a horse flops on the Polytrack (like Pyro did in 2008), I'm very, very hesitant now to say "well, he just didn't like the track" and then play him back in the Derby.
  • And finally, I don't know if there's a pattern of turf horses running well at Churchill or not, cause there are an awful lot of turf horses winning those races at Turfway and Keeneland that didn't do a thing in the Derby. For every Paddy O'Prado there's a Derby Kitten or Dean's Kitten (horses that were better on turf than dirt), or a Chocolate Candy and Dullahan -- horses that are clearly better on synthetics. More so, I think it's more important that a colt exiting a synthetic prep race shows versatility over a variety of surfaces or conditions and, to reiterate the first point, he's simply displayed a good amount of talent overall, regardless of surface. But even then, it's a guessing game until a horse actually proves his ability on the track.

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