Still hard to predict which horses will take to synthetic surfaces

Defining a textbook horse who is likely to succeed on dirt or turf can be as simple as glancing at the specimen’s physical makeup and pedigree page. Horsemen, however, remain divided over determining an archetype for synthetic-surface runners.

Horsemen now have 12 years of data on modern all-weather surfaces to help form an opinion, beginning with Turfway Park’s installation of Polytrack for its 2005 fall meet. From there, tracks in six other states and provinces have followed. Races on synthetic tracks have crossed the spectra of class and distance from nickel claimers to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Synthetic surfaces have fallen in and out of vogue, leaving Woodbine’s as the highest-profile meet with an all-weather main track. The Queen’s Plate, with a purse of 1 million Canadian dollars, is the world’s richest race over a synthetic surface.

Woodbine is in its 11th year of racing over a synthetic surface, but even the province’s most successful horsemen are still sorting out which characteristics work best on the main track.

“I’ve been looking hard to see if I can find a ‘synthetic foot,’ and I’ve had all different variation of horses win races [on the surface],” said Mike De Paulo, the trainer of 2016 Canadian Horse of the Year Caren. “Where you have a clubby-foot horse that maybe does a little better in the mud or flatfooted horses do a little better on the turf, I haven’t been able to find it yet.”

For some, the question of how a horse will run on synthetic footing can only be answered on the track.

“I have no hard-and-fast rule yet, I don’t think,” said Ian Black, the trainer of 2007 Queen’s Plate winner Mike Fox. “You buy the better horses. Some of these horses, when they’re not handling it, you go out there and train and work them a few times, and maybe you have to go to Fort Erie to find the dirt.”

There may not be a uniform opinion on what makes a synthetic-surface standout, but most will acknowledge the success that turf-leaning horses have had in the conversion.

To a degree, it adds up. Among last year’s top 20 sires by North American synthetic earnings, 10 won at least once on turf during their own racing careers. Just four of the top 20 on the overall sire list boasted a turf win.

“Any time we go to buy a yearling, we generally look to see if there’s some turf in the pedigree because synthetic and turf are fairly similar,” De Paulo said. “I wouldn’t say they’re the same. I’ve had plenty of horses that were good Polytrack horses that didn’t run well on the grass, but it’s certainly a little closer than a dirt horse.”

Nine of last year’s top 10 North American sires by progeny earnings on synthetic surfaces were Ontario-based, showing the weight that Woodbine’s Tapeta surface carries with the province’s breeders.

Old Forester has been Canada’s leading sire by general and synthetic earnings in four of the past six years, including 2015 and 2016. The son of Forestry was a Grade 3 winner on turf but has never topped the country’s turf sire list.

The stallion resides at T. C. Westmeath Stud Farm in Shelburne, Ontario. Farm owner John Carey said he does not buy into the belief that turf success automatically translates into success on all-weather surfaces. Instead, he said a stallion’s will to win and his ability to impart that onto his foals is the key to success on the surface.

“If you’re looking at a horse to stand as a sire, you have to look at a horse that was competitive,” Carey said. “Whether he ran on grass, synthetic, or dirt, he has to be a competitive racehorse himself.”- By Joe Nevills, Daily Racing Form