Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Looking Forward to The Breeders' Cup, I think

Like all thoroughbred racing enthusiasts, I look forward to the Breeders' Cup with great anticipation each fall, hoping to see the very best horses in the world strut their stuff. And this year, for the first time, there are two days of top racing, with the addition of three new races (Juvenile Fillies Turf, Turf Sprint, and Marathon), beginning on Friday afternoon, October 24th and continuing on Saturday afternoon, October 25th. You can see it on ABC (Saturday) and ESPN (Friday and Saturday).

But I will admit that last year's Breeders' Cup, and the one before that, lost their lustre for me when the great European champion George Washington broke his ankle and had to be put down on the muddy Monmouth track during the Breeders' Cup Classic (2007) and when the gallant three-year-old filly Pine Island fell on the backstretch of the Ladies' Classic (2006) at Churchill Downs and had to be immediately euthanized to end her suffering. I still think about them, with great sadness.

It's clear that the Breeders' Cup Board wants to avoid a repeat of these disasters at all costs, and partly with that in mind, I think, they have awarded two consecutive runnings (2008 and 2009) of the prestigious championship series to Santa Anita, which has worked hard to create a racing-safe surface. After having disastrous results with the synthetic Cushion Track, which had been installed last fall, Santa Anita went back to the drawing board and eventually hired Australian Ian Pearce to do a complete overhaul of the oval's surface, using his patented all-weather Pro-Ride synthetic product. The Pro-Ride surface has been cautiously applauded by horsemen and jockeys, though there have been five fatal breakdowns on it since Santa Anita reopened on September 24th.

The question looming over this year's Breeders' Cup is: will the Pro-Ride surface be able to prevent catastrophic breakdowns of the kind we've seen in at least the last three years' of this event?

And so it was with great interest that I read Marshall Gramm's fascinating analysis, "Injuries/Breakdowns at the Breeders' Cup," with a year-by-year table documenting all of the competition's "nonfinishers," including injuries and fatalities since the inaugural event in 1984. Encouragingly, Gramm notes that "six of the seven Breeders' Cups contested in California have been incident free. There has never been a breakdown in (a) California Breeders' Cup."

More ominously, though, Gramm projects that, "Based on 160 starters (90 synthetic, 70 turf) the 2008 edition projects 2.7 incidents, 1.6 horses eased and 1.1 more serious (pulled up, fall, break down). "

For the sake of the horses, we can only hope for a much better outcome.

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