09/03/2009 11:21AM

The synthetic debate rages


      From Slewofdamascus: May I ask your opinion of synthetic tracks and synthetic racing? That is, are you a satisfied handicapper when forced to handicap these tracks?  Do you support future dirt to synthetic transformations? What is the future of synthetic racing, to the best of your knowledge at the present time? 

      At this point, the primary selling point for synthetic surfaces is safety. (Remember the now-laughable concept that synthetics would be maintenance-free?)  And on that, the jury is still out. 

     The most recent California Horse Racing Board report that hind-leg catastrophic injuries are much more common on synthetics needs to be examined in the overall context of a per-starter basis. Something about the way these surfaces affect a horse's stride clearly puts more pressure on the hind limbs, but if the overall incidence of front-plus-rear fatal injuries is still, say, 30% lower on synthetics, the sport will have some difficult decisions to make.

     After all, horse deaths aren’t the only issue here. The debate often focuses on equine health, but when a horse breaks a leg during a race, jockeys can also be placed in a life-threatening situation.

      Also, don't forget the intense public outcry following Barbaro, or that the CHRB mandate for synthetics was prompted by the unacceptable injury rate over Southern California dirt tracks. It's easy to argue - especially in hindsight - that the CHRB jumped the gun.  But Southern California was facing a crisis, with prominent owners threatening to abandon the circuit.  And despite having their proverbial necks in a noose, racetracks simply were not spending the money to repair the unsafe dirt tracks many are now remembering fondly.   

      I'm not endorsing synthetics, and I’m sure many will take exception with my wait-and-see position.  I’m simply pointing out that studies currently underway need to be completed and data analyzed rationally and unemotionally before we give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

      Currently, we're faced with a swirl of contradictory points.

      To name just a few:

      Early reports indicate synthetics reduce catastrophic injury, but some trainers complain that other types of injuries are now much more prevalent.  Off tracks are eliminated by synthetics, but maintenance costs are as great or greater.  Increased field sizes - especially in off-the-turf races - is a plus to horseplayers, but many who cut their teeth on dirt racing are bitterly opposed to reinventing the wheel, so to speak, and are understandably confused by judging form of synthetic vs. dirt vs. turf. Some jockeys whose sense of self-preservation initially made them fans of synthetics are now starting to believe their injuries can be more severe when they hit the ground in a spill.  Are synthetic compounds toxic?  Do they get too hot?  Is every synthetic track necessarily superior to a dirt track with a good safety record?  Does climate make certain tracks better/worse candidates for synthetics?  If synthetics force breeders to place increased emphasis on stamina vs. speed, will the breed become sturdier?

     To me, Tapeta seems superior to other synthetic track versions - which should come as no surprise, since Michael Dickinson is essentially the godfather of such surfaces and knows more about them than anyone in the world.

    But there still are many more questions than answers.  And if research yields neither encouraging or tangible results, the synthetic era in thoroughbred racing could turn out to be a tumultuous and short one. 



Simone More than 1 year ago
I used to sit with a buch of guys at the track for years playing S. Cal tracks and Arlington. First some got sick of the drug infestation that was obvious in S. California with a number of "juice" guys all of a sudden training well over 30% winners. The rest left when the synthetic tracks came in to play poker. Now I am left playing Emerald Downs and Remmington alone! No surprise racing is suffering.
PhotoJoe More than 1 year ago
After three years in operation, the Tapeta at Presque Isle has proven time and time again to be a superior racing surface in terms of safety and consistancy, with far fewer breakdowns than conventional dirt tracks. Also important from the bettors point of view is the fact that many runners seem to benefit therapeutically after racing on the Tapeta, rewarding the astute player with some very hefty payoffs. Check the charts of Saratoga's recent meeting, the Erie shippers showed vast improvement after adding Tapeta to their routine. PhotoJoe Erie, Pa.
Geoffrey Gill More than 1 year ago
One thing that makes racing's new breed of decision-maker the sporting world's ultimate Nitwit Brigade is its staggering failure to learn from and follow the lessons of history. Here's a classic case in point. The last recorded training fatality at Payson Park in Stuart, FL -- which stables and trains hundreds of horses each year for the Gulfstream meet -- occurred on Jan 17, 1992! The reason is because whereas the normal "dirt" racing surface has a 3.5" - 4.5" clay base, Payson's clay base is 13.5 inches! Turn-back the clock five years and armed with this knowledge, does it not make perfect common sense that if the sport's aim was to curtail race-related fatalities, all it needed to do was copy the Payson model, rather than experiment with a complete unknown like synthetics? Since it seems to me impossible that racing executives en masse could be totally ignorant of Payson's extraordinary safety record, it lends credence to those who believe the new wave of synthetics had/has as its underbelly certain backroom political/financial shananigans. Then again, given the Nitwit Brigade excoriating track record, they probably are that stupid.
Barry More than 1 year ago
Hey Taxman- kindly keep your political opinion off these boards. We dont need that here.
dan c More than 1 year ago
My opinion is if they want to use it as a 3rd surface then fine. BUT you dont run the Grade 1 DIRT races on Polyrubber. The NBA dont play the finals outside on grass. NFL dont play the super bowl out a dirt field or concrete. The Olympics dont run the 100 meters final on cinder or grass. You cant run your Championship Dirt races on Rubber. It ruins the sprint, last yr the field was weak and small. Cause dirt sprinters are not running on that stuff. It has ruined the Dirt Mile, the 2yr old races and the Classic. Also it makes the turf classic and mile weaker cause the top Euro's run on the Rubber hoping to get the pot of money. It Henry and Raven run in the grass mile against Goldikova that would be a super race. If See the Stars runs against Conduit, Fame and glory, Rip van winkle, Mastercraftsman oh man what a turf race. The breeders cup needs to inforce a rule Dirt races are run on dirt, grass races on grass period. If California wants to have a Synthetic Cup then fine have it on a different day.
Leon More than 1 year ago
So far, the reason to switch to synthetics (safety for horses) has not been proven, despite the fact that it has already been 2-3 years of testing and trying different materials in different places. The fiasco at Santa Anita, the catastrophic break-down at Del Mar, and the irregular way races are run (Street Sense beat By Dominican in the Toyota Blue Grass in a harness-racing pace), just to name a few), make the 3-year-old experiment a total failure. Additionally, the not-so-popular change of surfaces have created an even larger separation between horse-racing communities from the east & west coast; thank god this crazy notion about synthetics did not exist back in the 70's and 80's, because we would have not seen great rivalries such as Sunday Silence vs Easy Goer, and Affirmed vs Alydar, who would meet almost anywhere, because there was no such issue regarding surfaces. There are two affirmations that almost everyone will agree on regarding synthetics: Turf horses do better on it than on regular dirt, and the people who develop & and install them have gotten wealthier....
Taxman More than 1 year ago
Just like Bush Jr. duped us on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the horse community has been duped on synthetic tracks. Save the horse deaths we were told, well the stats don't bear that out. Plus the hind end leg injuries you spoke about are very serious. The Breeders Cup at Santa Anita last year was a joke. Good luck getting my money to be bet there again this year. Horseplayers have a hard enough time trying to bet the races, now we have these bogus surfaces to deal with. Keeneland, Del Mar are both extremely difficult to handicap because of Polytrack. At least on dirt surfaces handicappers had a shot. Now I just pass on many races because of these surfaces. Less revenue for horsemen and tracks are a direct result. Thankfully Saratoga, Belmont, Churchill and Gulfstream have not succumbed to the pressure to change, racing needs to go back to dirt.
John More than 1 year ago
Uhm.... with regards to synthetics, think corporate money. It was a scam along along. Regarding injuries, besides stimulants and blocks, the real killer is the abuse of cortisone injections in every joint before every race. Read carefully now - c o r t i s o n e. Let's see now, stimulants to get the heart racing, Lasix to help them breathe (which also effects the circulatory system - read heart) Blocks to uhm... stop the pain and cortisone to make the joint work pain-free before a race. Why do you think the horses in California run like machines. Do I have to start a blog and write this myself. Come on guys. What was it that Van Berg said? "...chemical warfare."
Larry W. More than 1 year ago
Randy - I definitely appreciate your even handed treatment of an issue that is too highly partisan. However, as with many issues, if it is re-framed, the answer may not be so difficult. What is being compared in the current debate is the safety of new, highly maintained synthetic tracks against dirt tracks that were mainly old and indifferently maintained. It's actually surprising - and damning for synthetics - that the answer on whether the new synthetics or the old dirt tracks are safer is still so unclear. What if the question were not synthetics vs. dirt, but instead, that tracks need to spend a certain percentage of their take from handle on track maintenance? The tracks can choose whether to use synthetics or dirt but they have to put the same investment into maintenance. Only then, could we get a clear answer to the safety question. However, given the unclear results today despite the large investments made in synthetics, it's tough to believe that well designed and maintained dirt tracks would not perform at least as well and racing and its fans could have been spared the jarring disruption of synthetics that in just the last 12 months has so soured the game by depriving fans of a true final race by one its greatest horses - Curlin - and this year by spoiling the showdown between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra.
John Clarke More than 1 year ago
I am curious to know the incidence of fatalities at Saratoga this summer. I believe the results the past couple of years have been encouraging. John
Mike A More than 1 year ago
Randy, I agree, at this point and after spending 40,000,000.00 dollars there should be a wait and see attitude. Unfortunately that should have come before they spent the money. Reacting to public and private sentiment is no way to do anything, cooler heads should have prevailed. As we both know it's the tracks base and sub strate and consistancy of same that dictates how a track will perform. I don't care what the top cushion is made of. These things could have been addressed with the dirt tracks if anyone bothered to do what was needed. Horseman threatened to take their horses elsewhere before and now they are again, some already have. Cooler heads tried to prevail when the CHRB held their meeting to "discuss" the issue. Which lasted all of 5 minutes, like it was a done deal before the meeting started. Jerry Moss who was at that meeting said to just mark him as present since no one seemed to listen anyway. So now cooler heads should prevail and I hope they do, but from what I'm hearing it's going to turn out to be a very expensive white elephant. Mike A
Steve D More than 1 year ago
Randy, The industry had two choices when it came toward equine health and safety: 1. Demand investment in existing dirt tracks specifically geared toward equine safety. 2. Demand a surface change, which fundamentally changes the nature of racing, breeding, betting, etc...and convert racing at key venues (California, Keeneland, Arlington) away from historical American racing qualities and into a more European-style sport. I think that the time for wait and see is over. A 30% reduction in fatalities is wonderful, but could very well have been achieved by making alterations to existing dirt tracks instead of ripping them out. As an aside, I think that synthetics are fine in a few strategic locations...Turfway Park has been a success, for instance.
Barry More than 1 year ago
Hey Randy, We must also consider the Vet's complaints that for the last 200 years they've been treating the same type of natural dirt injuries, and are now having to "Re-invent the wheel" dealing with new injuries brought on by Synth. I also remember a bad joke about how Michael Dickinson's Horses always seemed to be coming off the bench.
Nick Briglia More than 1 year ago
As a horse player I will make it plain and simple. I don't play'em and I won't play'em.