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BREEDERS' CUP 2011: Grass Fight

Breeders' Cup Turf contender Sea Moon was able to gallop over the turf course on Wednesday, but not on Thursday when rain prompted official to close the grass course, angering the connections of many of the European horses.
Breeders' Cup Turf contender Sea Moon was able to gallop over the turf course on Wednesday, but not on Thursday when rain prompted official to close the grass course, angering the connections of many of the European horses.

Things got off to a bumpy start today at Churchill Downs when officials closed the turf course to training due to rain, preventing several of the European horses from putting in a gallop over the surface. This has angered several connections, most notably Richard Hannon, Jr., who was dismayed as to why his horse, Mile contender Strong Suit, wasn't allowed to prepare over the surface.

There are significant issues with turf courses in America and I think tracks are still struggling how to balance the need to protect the course during bad weather while allowing a robust turf program. We hate to see races taken off the grass, which always leads to scratches and a reduction in field size. But we also see many courses in poor overall condition due to overuse throughout the racing season.  Tracks like Belmont and Saratoga are able to deal with the situation much better due to fact that they have two turf courses.  But most tracks, including Churchill and Santa Anita, aren't that lucky.

The solutions for this turf course balancing act are dogs, movable rails, restricted training times, relatively few turf races, and switching races to the main track in times of rain.  But despite the balancing act by tracks, I'm not sure we've really reached a desirable point in the management of the courses or the turf racing program.

Looking just at the Breeders' Cup, I think there are several ways that the turf course can be protected yet still allow morning access:

1) Don't have any races over the grass leading up to Friday and Saturday. The seems like a no-brainer, but on Sunday Churchill Downs ran two races on the grass, along with two more on Wednesday, and a scheduled two more today [both of which were taken "off-the-turf].  All of those races are taking place with the rail up in order to protect the inner part of the course, but they are still running over the course.

This is just my feeling, but I would rather see Breeders' Cup contenders allowed to work over the turf course in the morning than running six claiming or allowances races over the surface in the afternoon.  I think the priorities are a little off.

2) Piggy-backing onto the first point: from the reports this morning, it was a relatively small number of horses that were seeking to work over the turf course. If five, ten, or fifteen gallops are too much for the course, then why are there any races even scheduled to run over it on Breeders' Cup week?  Additionally, the dogs are up in the morning, so none of those gallops are going to take place over the inner part of the course where Friday and Saturday's races are going to take place.  It just doesn't make any sense.

3) Looking at the bigger picture, I'm not sure why tracks don't organize their turf racing a little bit better in order to allow the turf course to recover.  Instead of running two or three turf races every day (and constantly ripping up the course), why can't they schedule turf races over a three or four day period, then break for two or three weeks, and then run on the turf course again. Why not have part of a meet feature turf racing and another part the main track? Or just certain days or weeks?  Sure, players like to see turf racing on a daily basis, but given the condition of some of our grass courses in this country (and the fact that we take any race off the turf due to minute amounts of rain) wouldn't it be better to be more proactive with scheduling? I'd rather see turf racing more concentrated on a few days, (and rarely have those races taken off the turf), than to have grass races scheduled every day but never knowing if I'm going to see half the fields scratch when the course is rated "Good".

4) This is an issue that really is important when you look at the big picture of the Breeders' Cup and the desire to be a "world championship" event.  To reach that goal, the event needs to attract the best horses in the world - whether it's from the U.S., Europe, Asia, or Australia. The conditions of the turf course is a huge factor in attracting those horses.

I don't blame the European trainers for not wanting to work their horses on dirt this morning.  They are shipping high-class turf horses to run in a high class turf race, why would you want to gallop those horses over a surface completely foreign to them?  Even worse, a surface that is wet? There's got to be a better way to balance the concerns than closing the turf course in the morning, regardless of weather.