Ever since 2006, the landscape has changed during the days and months leading up to the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup. The introduction of synthetic surfaces at tracks like Keeneland, Del Mar, Arlington Park, Turfway, Woodbine, Hollywood Park, and (for a time) Santa Anita,added another element to the handicapping picture: how do we deal with horses switching from one surface to the next.
Some handicappers will tell you that surface switches don't matter at all, while others hold steadfast to the notion that it makes all the difference, that some horses "can't" win on certain surfaces. The truth, as is usually the case, lies somewhere in between the two extremes.
How much do surface switches matter in the success or failure of a horse? In the case of horses that are running in a Breeders' Cup race on turf but made their last start on a different surface, it matters a lot. For some of the other surface switches, it depends.
I went through the old past performances and results charts for every Breeders' Cup race beginning with the 2006 Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs. I began with 2006 since that was the first year Keeneland ran a Polytrack meet, and given the significant Breeders' Cup prep races that take place during their fall meeting, I consider that the beginning of what I like to call "The Polytrack Era".
It's highly unlikely that we'll ever see another Breeders' Cup run over a synthetic surface, but it is just as unlikely that we'll see a Breeders' Cup without horses running their final prep races over Polytrack or some other synthetic surface. Keeneland and Del Mar aren't going to be switching their main tracks to dirt anytime soon (especially Keeneland), and it seems unlikely that Woodbine, Turfway or Arlington are in any way contemplating a change. So, like it or not, understanding the impact of a surface switch on Breeders' Cup contenders is a handicapping factor that we will have to deal with for quite some time. Fortunately, with every passing year, more and more data accumulates, providing us with a more detailed look at the profile of Breeders' Cup winners.
Below is a chart summarizing the success and failures of horses running on a specific surface at the Breeders' Cup as it relates to the surface on which they made their last prep race.
That chart is a little busy so here's some clarification on the columns/rows and what the data is illustrating:
The BC Surface columns indicate the percentage of all winners / in-the-money finishers / starters that have come from horses that ran their last race on one of the three surfaces on the left. For example, under BC Surface-Dirt, we see 75% on the Dirt-Win row. That means that 75% of the winners of Breeders' Cup races on the dirt since 2006 made their final pre-Breeders' Cup start on a dirt surface. If we scan down a few rows, we see 20% on the Synthetic-Win row. Same thing; 20% of all winners of a Breeders' Cup race on dirt made since 2006 ran their final prep race over a synthetic surface.
The rows labeled Dirt-Total, Synth.-Total, and Turf-Total indicate the percentage of total starters from 2006-2010 that made their final start on each surface. For example, 34.7% of all starter in Breeders' Cup races on the dirt made their final start on a synthetic surface.
While a chart like this might not help us pick winners, I think it can be of tremendous help in eliminating horses. Look at the final column for races run on the turf since 2006; every single horses to win a Breeders' Cup race on grass since 2006 made their final start on turf. Last out turf horses running in a Breeders' Cup turf race represented 84.2% of all starters in those races, and 100% of all winners. That's good.
Horses that made their last start on synthetics represented 13.7% of all starters in Breeders' Cup races on the grass since 2006, but 0% of all winners. In raw numbers, last-out synthetic horses are 0-for-39 on the lawn and have only been able to muster a pair of 3rd place finishes. The idea that synthetic horses are just turf horses masquerading as main track horses is really not accurate. Synthetic horses are, it appears, more of a mix of both dirt and turf influence; a middle-ground, not an extreme.
As an interesting side note to the failures of last out synthetic horses on turf, is the relative success of last out turf horses on synthetic. During the two Breeders' Cups at Santa Anita in 2008 and 2009, horses that made their final start on a turf surface were 33-3-5-2 overall, won three of the 16 main track races (18.8%), and represented 20.8% of all horses to finish in-the-money.
Turf horses won on synthetics, but synthetic horses don't win on turf (so far... we'll see how that holds up over the next five years).
A similar relationship exists between horses making their final starts on dirt verses those that made their final stat on synthetics. During the Santa Anita Breeders' Cups, dirt horses were shut out of the winner's circle (something you probably heard a lot about in the industry); they represented 25.4% of all starters in Breeders' Cup races conducted over a synthetic surface, but 0% of of all winners. That's really bad. But while horses making their last start on dirt were unable to win at all over synthetic surfaces, those making their final start on the plastic have won at a decent clip when competing in Breeder' Cup races on dirt.
Since 2006, horses making their final pre-Breeders' Cup start on a synthetic surface have represented 34.7% of all starters and 20% of winners. Synthetic horses aren't winning their fare share, but they at least are winning at a 20% clip, which is a lot better than the last-out dirt horses when running on synthetics.
Going forward, I think the question will still revolve around the synthetic horses because those are the "wild cards". Will the last-out synthetic horses continue to get shut out in the turf races, and will they be able to win a greater share of races on the dirt? The next few years should help us attempt to find answers to those questions.