From Synthetic prep race to the Kentucky Derby dirt

By Bill Heller

Street Sense’s dramatic, decisive victory in last year’s Kentucky Derby restructured a lot of perceptions about winning the Run for the Roses. Not only could a Breeders'Cup Juvenile winner return the following spring to capture the first leg of the Triple Crown, but he could make his final prep for Churchill Downs' dirt track on a synthetic one.

Street Sense wasn’t alone in switching from synthetic to dirt. Six Derby starters last year had their final preps on synthetic surfaces: the top five finishers in the Blue Grass Stakes on Keeneland’s Polytrack - Dominican, Street Sense, Zanjero, Teuflesberg and Great Hunter - as well as Hard Spun, who won the Lane’s End Stakes on Turfway Park’s Polytrack.

Trainer Carl Nafzger had no reservations about using Polytrack as Street Sense’s springboard to the Derby because he’d done exactly that the year before when Street Sense followed a third in the Lane’s End Breeders'Futurity at Keeneland with a resounding 10-length victory in the Breeders'Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.

Nafzger, however, said he would not have used the Blue Grass as Street Sense’s final Derby prep if Street Sense hadn’t already raced on dirt. "Even if he had worked on dirt, there’s a lot of difference between working and running,"Nafzger said. "I would definitely want to see my horse in a dirt race first. I don’t care if it was an allowance race; I’d want to see him in a race.”

Sedgefield did not have that luxury, finishing fifth last year as the first North American-based starter since at least 1955 to run in the Kentucky Derby without a previous dirt race.
He won’t be the last.

In mid-March, it appeared that at least three of California’s top Kentucky Derby prospects – Colonel John and El Gato Malo, the 1-2 finishers in the Sham Stakes, and San Vicente and San Felipe victor Georgie Boy – will also be making their first dirt start at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May.
"I don’t think it’s going to be a problem for the California horses,"said Darrin Miller, who trains both Sedgefield and Dominican. "I don’t think it’s a disadvantage at all.”

Obviously, the California trainers of those three Derby hopefuls – whose final race before the Derby figures to be the Santa Anita Derby – agree, as will other trainers who use the Blue Grass or the Lane’s End for their horses' final Derby prep.

"My concern is just getting to the race,"El Gato Malo’s trainer Craig Dollase said laughing. "That’s the objective of the synthetic track. The whole point is to keep your horse sound. We just want a healthy, sound horse going into the first Saturday of May. So be it if it’s on dirt.”

That’s the approach Miller took with Sedgefield. The 36-year-old native of Verona, Missouri, began training at Canterbury Park in Minnesota in 1995, and splits his year between Florida and Kentucky. He did an admirable job of getting both Sedgefield and Dominican to the Derby for Tommy and Bonnie Hamilton’s Silverton Hill Farm in Springfield, Kentucky.

Silverton Hill purchased Sedgefield, who is a full brother to 2007 Turf Champion English Channel, for $300,000 at Keeneland’s Two-Year-Olds-In-Training Sale in April, 2006. A month earlier, the Hamiltons purchased Dominican at the Ocala Two-Year-Olds-In-Training Sale for $150,000.

Sedgefield began his career late in his two-year-old season, finishing seventh on Polytrack at Keeneland on October 27, 2006. After running fifth on grass at Churchill Downs, he won a maiden race easily on Turfway Park’s Polytrack.

Miller asked a lot of Sedgefield in his next start, the Grade 3 Tropical Park Derby at Calder on grass, and Sedgefield fought it out on the lead the whole way, finishing second by three-quarters of a length to Soldier Dancer. "After the Tropical Park Derby, we decided that the Kentucky Derby was an option for him," Miller said. "The plan was this: we run in the Hallandale Beach (on grass) and the Lane’s End.”

First, though, Miller gave Sedgefield a confidence builder. Dropped to allowance company on grass at Gulfstream Park, Sedgefield won handily. Then, in the Hallandale Beach, Sedgefield again displayed his grittiness, finishing second by half a length to Twilight Meteor despite breaking from the 10 post. Sedgefield drew even worse in the Lane’s End: the outside post in a field of 12. Regardless, he finished second by 3 ½ lengths to Hard Spun.

Trainer Larry Jones chose not to give Hard Spun another race before the Kentucky Derby because Hard Spun’s graded stakes earnings were already enough to ensure he’d start in the Derby. Sedgefield’s weren’t.
So Miller, after considering the Blue Grass Stakes, sent Sedgefield back to turf instead in the Grade 3 Transylvania at Keeneland just 13 days after the Lane’s End. Sedgefield again battled on the lead, but this time he tired late to fourth as the 7-5 favorite. 

"I messed up,"Miller said. "I raced him back too quick. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. We thought it was an easy spot and it would give him the earnings he needed. We were right on the cusp there.”
With the fourth-place finish, though, Sedgefield did have enough earnings to break into the Derby field of 20. And Miller wasn’t worried about the switch to dirt. "He’d been on dirt as a two-year-old,"Miller said. "We didn’t see dirt as a problem for him at all.”

To prepare him for his first dirt race, Miller, who was stabled at Keeneland, worked Sedgefield four furlongs twice at Churchill Downs. Sedgefield breezed in: 49 (15th fastest of 35) 13 days before the Derby and in :48 2/5 (11th of 52) four days before. "After the first week, we moved the two horses to Churchill Downs,"Miller said. "He trained really well when he went there. He really stepped up to the plate. He was doing everything right. Then we had a lot of rain that week. He relished it. He trained very well on it.”

Dominican, who had two thirds from four previous races on dirt, including a fourth in an allowance race and a third in a Grade 2 stakes at Churchill Downs, worked just once after his gutsy victory in the Blue Grass. Five days before the Derby, Dominican breezed a bullet five furlongs in :59 2/5, fastest of 26 that morning.
Miller had both Sedgefield and Dominican primed for top efforts, but their preparation was seriously compromised the morning the selection order for post positions was drawn for the 20 Derby starters. "Our picks were 17th and 19th,"Miller said. "It was a pretty bad go. It left us in a pretty tough spot."Miller chose the rail for Sedgefield and the 19 post for Dominican, who finished 11th after a rough trip. The lack of a previous dirt start didn’t impact Sedgefield, who was dispatched at 58-1 from the highly disadvantageous rail.

Forwardly placed from the outset under Julien Leparoux, Sedgefield worked his way up to second midway through the mile-and-a-quarter classic. "I was just hoping he’d keep coming,"said Miller, who had never started a horse in the Derby before. Sedgefield tired late to fifth, nine lengths behind Street Sense, but just a length off third-place finisher Curlin, who subsequently was Horse of the Year and Three-Year-Old Champion.
Miller was proud of Sedgefield’s effort: "He gave us everything that day. He put it all out there.”

Some 10 months later, Miller said of his first experience in the Kentucky Derby: "It’s life-changing, for sure. It’s certainly a special opportunity and I’m grateful for it. It makes you want to do it again, searching for the next one."

Colonel John’s trainer, Eoin Harty, knows the feeling – kind of. The 45-year-old native of Dublin, who began his career as an assistant trainer for John Russell, was an assistant to trainer Bob Baffert when he nearly won three consecutive Kentucky Derbies. Cavonnier lost the ’96 Derby by a nose to Grindstone, then Silver Charm and Real Quiet took back-to-back Derbies. "It’s going to be my name on the program this time,"Harty said. "I’m going to bear full responsibility for the action of myself and my horse.”

He is perfectly comfortable with his decision to not give Colonel John a dirt start prior to the Derby. "I won’t because I’m a firm believer in training on synthetic courses,"Harty said. "I just think they’re so much kinder to the horse. You avoid the constant pounding, the bone on bone. The carnage rate of horses [on dirt] is unacceptable.”

Harty has had success training his horses on synthetic surfaces and then racing them on dirt. "From my own experience, I had a very good year at Churchill Downs last year, and my horses had worked on synthetic,"he said. "I did it with quite a few. I brought horses over [from Keeneland] the morning of the race at Churchill Downs, and that was it. It’s better for your horse. They stay sounder. If they’re sounder, they’re around to race longer and it’s good for the sport.”

Harty says he’s frequently asked about the difference between training horses on dirt vs. synthetic surfaces. "These are my opinions; they’re not facts,"he said. "From my own experience and from watching other trainers training on synthetic tracks, I wouldn’t say that training on synthetic is an advantage, but it gives a horse a different level of fitness. Every horse I’ve worked on a synthetic track who had been training on a dirt track, the first work is terrible. The second and the third are better. When I was at Santa Anita before they put in the synthetic track, and took them to Hollywood on synthetic for the first time, the horses seemed to be at a major disadvantage. When you look at synthetic tracks, they don’t have to work as hard to cover ground.”
Colonel John has been covering ground just fine on synthetic tracks. His victory in the Sham Stakes was his third in five starts. He was second in the other two races, one of them a Grade 1 stakes.

If he goes into the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May, it will be his first dirt race, but not be his first time on dirt. "I’ll probably work him and gallop him at Churchill Downs,"Harty said. "It probably won’t hurt.”

Like Harty, Dollase, whose El Gato Malo had won his first three starts, including the Grade 3 San Rafael Stakes, before finishing second in the Sham, will also work his horse on Churchill Downs'dirt track before he starts in the Derby. Dollase’s only previous Derby starter, Wilko, finished sixth in 2005.

"My routine is usually to get a work over the track,"said the 37-year-old Dollase. Unlike Harty, Dollase has a different opinion regarding training on synthetic vs. dirt tracks. "I think you get a lot more fitness out of the synthetic,"he said. "You have to work harder. I used to train at Hollywood Park when it was the only cushion track, then run on Santa Anita when it was dirt, and what an advantage I had. I had a good meet a year and a half ago. So did a lot of the guys who trained at Hollywood Park. We were the guinea pigs starting out. Our horses trained on it, and I trained them hard at Hollywood Park and they ran well on Santa Anita’s dirt track. It might be harder the other way. A lot of guys who trained at Santa Anita didn’t do that well at Hollywood Park.”
Will a horse who has never raced on dirt win this year’s Kentucky Derby? "I think ultimately it comes down to the best horse wins the Kentucky Derby,"Harty said. "Look over the past 133 Derbies; usually the best horse wins. I think if the horse is good enough, he’ll overcome not racing on dirt.”

And if Harty’s horse doesn’t overcome that? "It would be a convenient excuse,"he said. "Based on my own experiences and the feelings of my owners, this is the route I take.”

Undoubtedly, as synthetic tracks grow in popularity, more trainers will take that route. Ultimately, the question won’t be can horses who have raced exclusively on synthetic surfaces win the Derby, rather which synthetic surface - Polytrack, Cushion or Tapeta - is more conducive to making that transition. 

Pilates for horses - enhancing performance and reducing injuries

Nuclear scanning - the next stage in diagnosing lameness