09/23/2010 1:33PM

Racing Surfaces Are Not the Problem

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The death of Pea Stone at Belmont Park on Wednesday serves as a reminder that the reason for the all too frequent breakdowns at American racetracks has far less to do with the type of surface upon which horses are running than with the breeding of the horses, their training and running styles, and the medication policies that put horses at risk every time they step out onto the track.
To argue the relative safety merits of dirt tracks as opposed synthetic tracks is an exercise in futility. Synthetics may be nominally safer, although they seem to cause track superintendents no end of trouble when it rains. Horses still break down on synthetics, however, just as they do on dirt tracks. The track at Belmont on Wednesday was perfectly safe, but that didn't help poor Pea Stone.
One of the main reasons for this dreadful situation is that we breed almost exclusively for speed in this country. One of the ways this is done is to breed bone out of horses' legs, making it easier for them to move rapidly. However, they are still carrying torsos similar in weight to what they were carrying back in the fifties and sixties, before the craze for speed began.
Heavy bodies and spindly legs is a recipe for disaster. And because we breed for speed, most of our races are run at sprint distances, and on hard dirt courses. Given the configuration of all American racetracks, horses in sprint races are reaching a peak of speed at just about the time they reach the first turn. And these turns are tight by any international standard. By contrast, most sprint races in Europe are run on straight courses, and on relatively soft turf courses as well. The pressure on the American Thoroughbred's legs on turns, especially in sprints, is murderous.
Add the masking qualities of Lasix and Bute, and things get even worse, especially with the painkilling bute, which allows horses to run through the pain that might be caused by any infirmity in their legs.
So instead of forever arguing over whether we should be racing of dirt or synthetics, we should be building racetracks with long straights and milder turns. We should also be running more races on turf, as that surface is much easier on a horse's legs. Yet all of the racetracks that have opened in America in recent years have been typical one-mile bandboxes with tight turns and short straights.
Already this season we have lost top dirt performers Eskendereya, perhaps the best 3-year-old of the year, Belmont Stakes winner Drosselmeyer, and Travers winner Afleet Express. One wonders when the carnage will end. It will certainly not come when Santa Anita re-installs a dirt track in time for their winter meeting on Dec. 26.