09/03/2009 10:21AM

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.