Smile Politely

A Trip to Keeneland Proves the Jury is Out on Polytrack

I would start a barroom brawl in the defense of my Derby horse if he was unjustly criticized, and that’s nearly what happened on the rail at Keeneland when a drunken ox with an ape brain shouted, “No Derby for you, huh, number seven!”

Yes, at that moment, I about lost it. It was not a good day for Pyro, (number seven for those people who can’t read letters), who went off as the even money favorite at 1–1 in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. Coming off two impressive wins in Louisiana, Pyro descended upon synthetic track for the first time and met disaster.

After a slow start, Pyro fell to last in the field of twelve and never even got involved in the race, moving up to eighth position before finishing an uninspiring tenth place. This is a horse who’s never finished worse than third in his life, and so one has to pose the question: what exactly happened out there?

And here is where I stand up and testify that the poor performance was not the fault of the horse, but that of his human relationships. Pyro should’ve been winning the Arkansas Derby Saturday. That is, after all, where stable mate and world champion mentor Curlin won before entering the Derby last year. Pyro had never raced on turf or a synthetic surface until Saturday; he likes and thrives on dirt tracks. The Kentucky Derby is on dirt, and so what possessed his connections to send him to the perpetual slaughter in the Blue Grass in his final Derby prep? While the jury is still out on whether or not Polytrack (or synthetics) is safer for horses, one thing has been made certain from a race like this: Polytrack is not the same as good old-fashioned dirt.

For proof, look at the top finishers: Monba (one of his only two wins was at Keeneland), Cowboy Cal (only raced on turf prior to this race), and Kentucky Bear (who placed seventh in his only graded stakes race), none of which had odds better than 15–1. It’s been a trend that a turf horse can interchange to Polytrack easily, but sending a dirt horse to the stuff can be like switching from running on concrete to running on sawdust. Polytrack, after all, is ground up garbage. A close inspection of the stuff will reveal chopped up rubber bands and powdered cardboard — where is the traction? A horse that is used to pushing off from a harder surface has nowhere to go when sinking in a landfill.

The bottom line is this: the horses who should’ve been contenders in the Blue Grass were keeping Pyro company in the back of the field. Visionaire, Big Truck, and Cool Coal Man were all dirt horses as well, and they all probably went back to the barn at the end of the day and ranted about the shoddy track over a good can of bran mash and oats.

The last major prep race for the Kentucky Derby turned into an embarrassment for too many good horses, and it’s a shame. Now, instead of the Derby gates being filled with true champion contenders, the crack-ups are getting virtually free tickets to the biggest show on earth thanks to the graded stakes earnings off one flubbed-up race. Let’s just hope that when the gates bang open on the first Saturday in May, the classes are separated and the truly talented horses are able to untangle themselves from the herd and put themselves where they belong.

After all, a race isn’t a race until the playing field is leveled.

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