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Synthetic Derby Trail (2/29/2008)

An interesting quote from trainer Nick Zito caught my eye following his Sunday success with Cool Coal Man and War Pass. Regarding his intentions for future Derby preps he was quoted in Wednesday’s Daily Racing Form regarding synthetic surfaces: “I like natural surfaces, grass and dirt, not the rubber from your attic.” Zito has earned the reputation as fairly straight-forward hay, oats, and water trainer. He is old school so maybe that explains his hesitation to race on synthetic courses. He has since tempered that statement and was quoted in today’s DRF as considering Keeneland’s Blue Grass as a possibility, citing his admiration for what Carl Nafzger did with Street Sense leading up to the ’07 Kentucky Derby.
The synthetic surface debate rages on. The debacle at Santa Anita this winter serves as the current crucible. Eleven racing days were lost and not only did it hurt Santa Anita it dragged down the rest of the industry. Southern California racing still brings people to the simulcast parlors around the country. Action on SA filters down to wagers on other tracks. Many stayed away when SA cancelled and we all suffered because of it.
Now allowing Santa Anita to return to a conventional dirt surface is being bandied about which seems odd if the original premise that mandated California tracks to install synthetic tracks was sincere. I tend to follow the money in these cases and it generally has been the right path. If synthetic surfaces are the right thing to do then why wasn’t it mandated that Los Alamitos, which runs year-round and conducts more races than any other California track, must install one? Possibly because it would cause a shutdown of three to six months and a loss of revenue to the state? I floated this question to someone in the industry and their best answer was that the law required only tracks running four or more consecutive weeks of thoroughbred racing to install a synthetic surface. Seems convenient.The mandate was issued and the tracks were left to fend for themselves in surface selection with little more than a “Good luck” from the California board. Why an experiment this large was played out on the grand stage is beyond me.