"Brown Grass" From Down Under...Get Used To It

Randy ChristianCorrespondent IOctober 26, 2008

In the craze of tecno rock and roll in the 1980's, the lead singer of The Talking Heads, David Byrne, uttered a line from the song 'Once In A Lifetime'..."same as it ever was".  A qualified pre-baby boomer translation of this musical lyric is this;  As much as those everyday issues around us need a level of scrutiny and change if the case warrants, those with that power simply choose to go with the hum drum status qou and leave the real work for those who arrive on the scene later.

Ultimately, those brave and gallant individuals who want to make a difference often have to travel a long, winding road (yes, even Sir Paul) littered with problems, unpopular circumstances, and eventually a cutting edge solution to a long accepted way of doing things.

A recent case in point...

In 1965, after much collaboration between the powers that be in Harris County, Texas, a supposed " eighth wonder of the world" stood as the unsuspecting gateway to American team sports as we know them now.  Under the rigid and often used whip of Judge Roy Hofheinz, President of Houston Sports Association, the Houston Astrodome dazzled fans worldwide as the first domed stadium of the world.  As in Texas, everything is done with a glitz and glitter that does appear larger than life.  No different in this case.  The engineers and architects of the 'dome were ultra-eager for the opening home game of the Houston Astros in that spring of '65.  No page had been unturned and no expense too rich to offer this gem on the Texas landscape.  Then a collective gasp and the chorus of dis-belief could be heard all the way to Dallas...the grass was BROWN!  The field had been prepared and sodded with the finest bermuda grass there was available, just like the grass in Rice Stadium just blocks away.  Neglected by the dozens of men and women who had planned and developed this icon was the simple, seventh grade fact that grass needs unfiltered sun light to provide chlorophyl which in turn keeps the grass green...OPPS!  As a quick summary to this embarrassing problem, the abrupt invention and implementation of "Astroturf" by the Monsanto Corporation saved the season and the integrity of this first of a kind mega stadiums.

From the 60's to now, indoor turf is as common as the Al Gore invention, the internet.

From "then" till "now", the mention of "brown grass" was the stuff of old jokes in Houston and the reason for fake grass in stadiums.  Then on October 24 and 25, "brown grass" reared it's ugly head once again.

The Sport of Kings, thoroughbred racing, is about to be turned inside out by the advent of a new racing surface called Pro-Ride.  A company in Australia has studied and developed a new strain of artificial racing surface that is termed by Jay Cronley of ESPN as "brown grass".  This surface is made up of select sand granules and a polymeric binder.  Pro-Ride does not need water between races, can perform well either in hot or cold temperatures, and professes to offer NO track bias concerning speed or pace tactics.  Many training facilities in Australia and England have employed the use of the synthetic material.  The past 18 months, United States race tracks are having the traditional dirt surfaces replaced with the Pro-Ride system.  Yes, this is a far cry  from the old "Equi-track" surface briefly used in the early 90's at Remington Park in Oklahoma.

Why "brown grass"?

All the fans of the sport had to do this past Friday and Saturday was to pay attention to the Breeder's Cup races and decide late Saturday with a collective, head shaking, and sad commentary that racing as we know it is over.  "Be careful in what you wish for".  In the signature race of this event, the Breeder's Cup Classic, horse of the year, Curlin, became a frustrated dirt loving champion that watched a European three year old colt sweep past and claim the winner's share of $2,600.00.00.  In a wider scope of the 2 day world championships, seven horses from homes in Europe swept past their American counterparts, doing so in temperatures hovering in the low 90's.

So, what is the issue?

As much as most American horsemen hate change and adhere to the old ways that brought us Seabiscuit, Man o' War, and Secretariat, "brown grass" is going to prevail someday in every track that horses set a hoof upon.  So far, this Pro-Ride system is proving to be the most forgiving and safe surface known to turfdom so far.  This sand and polymer mixture mimics the feel and the cushion that has and will favor horses who have an affinity for turf (real grass). As far as Curlin's dilemma, he raced in the Man o' Water Stakes on turf (for the first time) this summer and did well to check in second that day.  In a much similar race in the Classic, Curlin was dominant until mid way down the stretch until his dirt pedigree caught up with him, along with a grass loving English colt.  Curlin's trainer, Steve Asmussen said it best the day after his charge's defeat, "He works harder to go over it than he works to go over the dirt". The upside now is that, after so much dialog and complaining withing the horse industry, thoroughbred racing finally has a racing surface that seems to offer safety to the horse while not comprising individual race times or noticeable track biases.  Long term downside is huge to the breeder and the trainer...bottom line is that our horses bred in the United States will have to someday accept all surfaces...dirt, turf, and "brown grass".  That might take decades to attain.

Me, all I have to wonder is what would have happened had Eight Belles raced on Pro-Ride instead of dirt?  Maybe the Houston Sports Authority will someday build an indoor race track and install the Pro-Ride system.  Talk about the past meeting the future!