Taking Stock: Turf and Dirt Under the Microscope

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Nearly one of every six races in 2017 was on the turf | Coady

By Sid Fernando

First, the facts, bare and unvarnished: In 2017, 17% of the 37,483 flat races in the United States were on turf, up from 5% of 71,454 races in 1991.

I wrote about this shift to turf and its relationship to the breeding industry here in March. At face value, this is a significant increase, but it’s bigger than I thought, because turf racing at some of the most prestigious race meets is even more impactful when filtered for quality.

After removing claiming races from totals and using only races with purse values of $50,000 or more, the combined numbers in 2017 for 2,394 qualifying races at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Kentucky Downs (which races on turf only), Belmont, Saratoga, Santa Anita, Del Mar, Oaklawn (dirt only), and the “championship meet” at Gulfstream were 46% turf and 54% dirt. Those are head-turning figures for turf racing, and it’s likely that the differences between turf and dirt will be even narrower this year, when, believe it or not, there were more races scheduled for turf than dirt at Saratoga. These selected races, by the way, comprised only 6% of all races in the US last year but offered money and prestige at many more times their weight. For instance, almost half of leading turf sire Kitten’s Joy’s total earnings from North America and Europe last season came from this narrow circuit at the top of the game.

The heft of turf racing is further amplified by another fact: 39% of all graded races in the US last year were on turf. Or, framed another way, there were 178 graded races on turf from a total of 6,271 turf races versus 277 graded races from a total of 31,212 races on mostly dirt (including a smattering of synthetic tracks).

The distance composition of the 2,394 races? Sprints at seven furlongs or less made up 33% of the dirt races compared to 15% on turf, while 18% of races at a mile and a sixteenth or more were on turf versus 13% on dirt. For races at more than seven furlongs but less than a mile and a sixteenth–the miler category

–13% were on turf while 8% were on dirt. Turf racing clearly leans towards stamina.

These are the facts.

Sire Stats

Researcher Chris Rossi, an astute observer of the racing landscape, picked the tracks for this survey after consulting with me and then compiled sire stats based on the criteria noted above. The two accompanying charts separately rank the leading 25 sires on turf and dirt by progeny earnings, and they offer an interesting look at how well these sires performed at top-tier or purse-rich venues.

The active leading dirt sires (Unbridled’s Song at #1 is deceased) were led by such established big guns as Lane’s End’s Candy Ride (Arg) ($80,000 fee in 2019) at #2, Hill ‘n’ Dale’s Curlin ($175,000) at #3, Lane’s End’s Quality Road ($150,000) at #4, Gainesway’s Tapit ($225,000) at #5, Adena Springs’s Ghostzapper ($85,000 in ’18; ’19 fee not announced yet) at #6, Spendthrift’s Malibu Moon ($75,000) at #7, Darley’s Medaglia d’Oro ($200,000) at #8, and Spendthrift’s Into Mischief ($150,000) at #9.

The stats are illuminating, but beware that a glimpse at one year doesn’t necessarily provide the entire picture, as any horse can have an “off” year. And younger horses are at a disadvantage by a lack of numbers. This is particularly evident on the dirt list. Nonetheless, WinStar’s Bodemeister ($25,000), with only two crops racing through 2017, was #10 on the dirt list with a first-crop Kentucky Derby winner; Lane’s End’s Union Rags ($60,000), also with two crops, but with four Grade l winners in them, was #16; the Darby Dan duo of Shackleford ($20,000 in ’18) and Dialed In ($25,000 in ’18), also with two crops each, were #24 and #25, respectively; Ashford’s Uncle Mo ($125,000), who had a first-crop Derby winner in 2016, was #15 with three crops; and Quality Road and Ashford’s Lookin At Lucky ($17,500), with four crops each, were #4 and #14, respectively. That’s an impressive showing for these young horses because as a rule first crops tend to be more productive than second crops and fourth crops are frequently the least effective in a stallion’s early career. [Because Pimlico wasn’t included in this survey, Hill ‘n’ Dale’s Maclean’s Music ($25,000), with two crops and the sire of a first-crop Preakness winner, lost all chance to make the dirt list.]

Turf Sires

In contrast to the dirt list, the turf list is populated mostly by older stallions, with a few standouts from Europe (Dubawi {Ire} and Galileo {Ire}) and more than a few dead sires (Scat Daddy, Giant’s Causeway, Unusual Heat, Northern Afleet, City Zip, Arch, Harlan’s Holiday, Smart Strike, and Exchange Rate). With little crossover from the dirt list (Medaglia d’Oro, Candy Ride, Tapit, Into Mischief, and More Than Ready stand out), what this means, to use a baseball analogy, is that a lot of qualified rookies are going to get playing time in the near future.

The opportunities are there and the positions will need to be filled, but until that happens–because demand for quality turf horses is exceeding supply–expect a greater number of foreign imports in the immediate future to compete against the progeny of the few veteran turf sires around. One of those veterans is Calumet’s English Channel ($25,000 in ’18), ranked #6 last year on the turf list and the sire of four Grade l winners in 2018–all on turf. He was profiled here two weeks ago.

Warranted or not, stallions, like actors, get typecast early, and after that it’s difficult to play against type, especially if they find success in a particularly notable way. Danzig’s War Front ($250,000) at Claiborne, the most expensive stallion for 2019, is such an example. His first crop contained Gl Malibu S. winner The Factor and Grade ll Fountain of Youth S. winner Soldat on dirt, but then a deluge of European success came so forcefully that he hasn’t been able to extricate himself from grass since, though Claiborne’s Walker Hancock and Bernie Sams maintain to this day that he’s a top dirt sire and told me this summer that they’ve sent high-quality dirt mares to him in recent seasons to prove exactly this. In the meantime, he remains an outstanding source of high-quality turf runners both here and abroad and was #3 on the turf list with six graded winners, despite having some of his best runners in Europe. Note that 90% of his overall earnings in this survey came from turf.

There’s no such equivocation about Kitten’s Joy ($75,000), #1 on the turf list with 98% of his earnings on turf. A son of the Sadler’s Wells stallion El Prado (Ire), as is #2-ranked Medaglia d’Oro, Kitten’s Joy came up during the synthetic age and in 2013 became the first horse in North America to lead the general sire list with non-dirt horses. Relocated from Ramsey Farm to Hill ‘n’ Dale for the 2018 breeding season, his exceptional ability has been on display in Europe in recent years, first with Group 1 winner Hawkbill and this year with Group 1 winner and the top-rated 3-year-old colt Roaring Lion, but the grass-friendly environment here has also allowed for the development of high-quality all-turf domestic runners like Oscar Performance, a Grade 1 winner at two, three, and four in North America and so far the earner of $2.3 million without ever setting foot on dirt. He enters stud at Mill Ridge next year and is the type of horse that could fill vacancies available on the turf list down the road.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that Oscar Performance is destined to be a turf-only sire, like his sire. Ashford’s late Scat Daddy, for example, #4 on the turf list last year, came up with the Triple Crown winner this year, and More Than Ready at #5 is the sire of the 2018 Travers winner.

It does mean, however, that it will pay to follow those turf stallions that are poised to inherit a landscape that’s ideally set up for them.

Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.

 

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