By Bill Finley
Does dirt form transfer over to synthetic tracks and vice versa? And do the progeny of traditional Kentucky-based dirt stallions run, for the most part, just as well on synthetic as they do on dirt? These are some of the many questions being asked after a rash of breakdowns over the last few months has led some to call for synthetic tracks, which, statistics show, are safer than dirt and turf courses, to replace dirt tracks.
While one horse and one race is not much of a sample size, the appearance of Tyson (Tapit) in Saturday's GI Jockey Club Gold Cup at Saratoga could provide some anecdotal evidence one way or the other. By Tapit out of Honouring (Smart Strike), his breeding is all about the dirt. One of the premier sires in the sport, Tapit had produced 73 graded stakes winners on the dirt.
But when Tyson made his debut on March 4, 2022 it was in a synthetic surface race at Gulfstream for Todd Pletcher, which he won by a length. Afterward, Tyson had a minor issue and Pletcher recommended that he be sent to Woodbine. He was given 14 months off and returned for trainer Josie Carroll. She has started him four times, all of them on Woodbine's synthetic surface. He's gone 3-for-4, a record that includes wins in the GIII Dominion Day S. and the GII Seagram Cup.
Arguably the best older horse in Canada, he's earned the right to tackle tougher company in races with larger purses. That meant coming to Saratoga and trying the dirt.
“Obviously, this horse is very accomplished on the synthetic, but he is doing really well right now and we felt that if ever there were a time to try him on a different surface and in a Grade I the time to do it is when they are at the top of their game,” Carroll said. “Now seemed to be the time to find out.”
As co-owner and breeder John Sikura sees it, if Tyson runs to his Woodbine form he can win the Gold Cup. But if it turns out that he can only run his best over a synthetic surface then there won't be much hope.
“He has obviously thrived on the synthetic and proven he's a very good horse on that surface,” Sikura said. “The conundrum now is we have no idea how he will perform going from synthetic to dirt. It's the same question in reverse when they send dirt horses to run on synthetic. It will be interesting to see what happens. If he runs his race he will be a competitive horse in the race. If he doesn't handle the dirt he'll finish toward the back.”
While Tyson has worked exclusively on the Tapeta surface at Woodbine he did have five works on the dirt surface at Payson Park over the winter. Carroll said she can't be sure that the horse will make the switch to dirt, but she was encouraged by those works.
“This horse trained all winter on the dirt at Payson Park so we have some familiarity so far as how he gets over it,” she said. “He's been here in Saratoga for three days and he's handling the dirt just fine. How he'll run on it is an unknown and will be until you get across. Running against good horses at a mile and a quarter is an acid test.”
Carroll also has some additional familiarity with how Tapits run on synthetic surfaces. She picked up the biggest win of her career in the 2009 GI Alabama S. at Saratoga, winning it with Careless Jewel (Tapit). The Tapit filly won twice over the synthetic surface at Woodbine before reeling off three straight dirt wins in the GII Delaware Oaks, the Alabama and he GII Fitz Dixon Cotillion S.
“She was a horse I trained exclusively on synthetic,” said Carroll, who has also entered Duke of Love (Cupid) in the Gold Cup. “We just shipped and ran on the dirt. She handled it, obvuiously, quite well. She won a lot of nice races on the dirt. That influenced me. It showed me it could be done. You don't have to breeze over a dirt surface to get them ready. In fact, horses bounce off of the Tapeta onto the dirt well.”
According to statistics provided by Thoro-Graph, the offspring of Tapit fare only slightly better on dirt than they do on synthetics. Tapits have 8,862 starts on dirt, winning 1,518 races for a winning rate of 17.1%. On synthetic surfaces, Tapits have 1,677 starts and have had 245 winners for a winning rate of 14.6%.
While a fan of Woodbine's Tapeta surface, Carroll isn't ready to call for an end to dirt racing.
“I think it is a very complicated issue,” she said. “Clearly, there are horses that prefer the dirt to the synthetic. A well maintained dirt track is a safe surface. I don't think we need to rush to eliminate anything. Statistically, the Tapeta is a safe surface. But you are dealing with athletes and any time you deal with athletes there will be injuries.”