While it might not sound like much of an upper-level cabinet post, the Ambassadors of Dirt at the 2009 Breeders' Cup World Championships will be the most highly scrutinized politicos in this dog-and-pony show.
"Politicos" might sound like a bit of a reach, but if you've read three sentences about the all-weather surface firestorms that have brewed in thoroughbred racing over the past few years, you know just how charged and emotional the debates have become. One longtime industry official told me this week that the debate has become the "abortion" and "gun control" of horse racing, where it's impossible to even mention to most in the heated discussion that there actually are pros and cons to evaluate.
The only way to soothe the burning fires is for some true-blue (or brown) dirt horses to have unabashed success in the eight main-track races that will be conducted over the Pro-Ride all-weather surface Nov. 6 and 7. That won't be easy based on the prospective starters. In fact, the weight of the argument falls on the shoulders of precious few top-shelf dirt horses that have been aimed at this year's championship events.
Senior Ambassador: D'Funnybone
Lesser extent: Aspire, Aikenite
Political Spin: The BC Juvenile is littered with sprint sensations like D'Funnybone combusting around a route of ground, but if he loses big time, surely the surface will be the scapegoat. History indicates more depth to the debate, but that won't matter (see: Munnings in 2008). Aspire has not run around two turns yet, either, but has a pedigree to like the surface. Aikenite chased that one in the Hopeful but got some all-weather experience at Keeneland. But the focus on surface here lies squarely with D'Funnybone, who will be one of those bellwether horses in the post-event discussion win, lose or draw. I personally don't like him at all going 1-1/16 miles around two turns right now over dirt, Pro-Ride or shredded wheat, but wish him the best of luck.
Senior Ambassador: Girolamo
Lesser extent: Pyro, Join in the Dance, Ready's Echo, Quality Road
Political Spin: Girolamo is unbeaten this year, winning all three on dirt, and is the buzz horse among late-season sophomores. But his races all have been around one turn, he's never faced quality older horses in stakes company and he's a tenuous horse to hang your surface argument on based on those facts. Girolamo could be all or nothing on any surface. Pyro has made only two starts this year, both sprinting. His '08 Blue Grass might suggest a disdain for synthetics, but he did beat half the field in this race last year. Quality Road appears more likely headed to the Classic, but he'd be a heckuva benchmark if he runs here for Team Pletcher.
Senior Ambassador: Munnings
Lesser extent: Capt. Candyman Can, Kodiak Kowboy, Gayego
Political Spin: Munnings has shown only once in his career that he can win a race of this repute, and 3-year-old males from America long have been under-laid, bad-beats in the Sprint. Still, given how bad he ran in the two-turn Juvenile last year, rest assured a Munnings no-show this year will be chalked up to a disdain for the track. Horses like Capt. Candyman Can, Kodiak Kowboy and Gayego clearly are better horses on natural dirt, but have had some limited success on the all-weather tracks, and a victory by any would projected to be because they took to the synthetics. Those horses have a much better chance than Munnings to win, but won't be evaluated as purely dirt horses because of their past all-weather experiences.
Senior Ambassador: Summer Bird
Lesser extent: Quality Road and Mine That Bird
Political Spin: Sophomore season Travers winners are 0-for-15 in the Breeders' Cup Classic, five as beaten favorites, including horses like Bernardini and Street Sense in the past three years. It's hard to be peaked in August and November, so Summer Bird has a license to step back regardless of surface. Meanwhile, distance questions remain for Quality Road. Neither 3-year-old has a guaranteed slice of the Classic, no matter the surface. But neither has run on the all-weather in the afternoon, thus having a built-in excuse. Mine That Bird's potential win would be snuffed out by those claiming he was a champion 2-year-old in Canada on Polytrack last year, while forgetting the fact that he won the Kentucky Derby on dirt and placed in the Preakness and Belmont.
Senior Ambassador: Nite Light
Lesser extent: Eldaafter
Political Spin: A race loaded with long-winded turfers from Europe and America, there's not much main track form to choose from, au natural or synthetic. And though he's run 13 times in 15 starts on real dirt, Nite Light did qualify for this race by winning over Turfway's Polytrack footing. This race won't tell us anything in the dirt or synthetic argument.
Senior Ambassador: Devil May Care
Lesser Extent: Beautician and Bickersons
Political Spin: The only real dirt-only contender pre-entered is Frizette winner Devil May Care, who has yet to run around two turns and has been her own worst enemy at the gate. The distance and 14-horse field might get her before the surface does. Beautician and Bickersons both ran well in their all-weather track debuts last time out after having plenty of natural dirt success. Still, history says the west coasters dominate this division when it's held out west, no matter the year or surface.
Filly & Mare Sprint:
Senior Ambassador: Sara Louise, Seventh Street
Lesser Extent: Game Face
Political Spin: Both Godolphin entrants, Sara Louise and Seventh Street, should be considered dangerous and legitimate contenders. Neither has run on anything but dirt, though each is of such top quality that they provide one of the weekend's truest barometers as to if a dirt horse can succeed on the synthetic track. Still, they'll have to beat equally capable and proven, multi-surface threats Informed Decision and defending champion Ventura. A three-four finish is not out of the question, and not necessarily a bad performance. But these two should run very well regardless of surface and are legitimate candidates for someone to use in their post-race argument.
Senior Ambassador: Music Note
Lesser Extent: Careless Jewel, Cocoa Beach
Political Spin: All but one of Music Note's 11 career races have been on the dirt, and the lone synthetic try was last year's third-place effort in this race. You can spin that as a good or bad effort, though it was her worst finish of the year. She appears to be in every bit as good or better form in '09 and should finish in the top two. Anything less and you likely can blame the surface. Of course, finishing second potentially to Zenyatta would be no bad thing if Zenyatta were to run on Friday vs. Saturday. Meanwhile, Careless Jewel has won three straight graded stakes on dirt, but opened her career 3-for-3 on the Polytracks of Woodbine and Keeneland. She could be twisted to either side of the argument.
The bottom line is that only one serious "dirt-only" contender is considered capable from this eye of advancing the surface argument, and that's Music Note. If she can't muster any better than last year's third-place run in the Ladies' Classic, I'll be very surprised. In fact, she could beat Zenyatta head to head on the Pro-Ride, something that would be a legitimate feather to the dirt horses.
None of the other dirt-based horses listed above has a license that says it has to finish in the exacta. Some certainly could, headed by Sara Louise and Seventh Street in the Filly & Mare Sprint, but most are legitimate question marks based on several handicapping factors.
I'd rank the best chances for dirt horses on the Pro-Ride this way:
1. Music Note, Ladies' Classic
2. Sara Louise, F&M Sprint
3. Seventh Street, F&M Sprint
4. Girolamo, Dirt Mile
5. Summer Bird, Classic
If Quality Road were to run in the Dirt Mile instead of the Classic, he would rank second on that above list of potential "dirt-only" horses to win on the Pro-Ride, though most expect him to engage the tougher 1-1/4 miles of the Classic.
Give trainers Todd Pletcher and Saeed bin Suroor, as well as their owners, much credit. The vast majority of dirt contenders listed throughout this piece will wear either the white bridle of Pletcher or the Godolphin blue of Suroor's chief client, Godolphin Racing. Pletcher and Suroor will have as much to say about whether or not a dirt horse can win on these surfaces in a championship race as anyone.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the managing partner of the handicapping Web site Horseplayerpro.com. You can e-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.