04/09/2014 4:39PM

Andrew Beyer: Synthetic supporters didn't weigh all the facts


When the Blue Grass Stakes is run at Keeneland on Saturday, it is unlikely to produce the next Kentucky Derby winner. Though it was once the most important 3-year-old prep race, it became irrelevant after Keeneland replaced its dirt track with a synthetic surface. None of the seven horses who captured the Blue Grass on Polytrack proceeded to win on Churchill Downs’s dirt; most ran dismally.

The decline of its signature race was only one of the reasons that Keeneland announced last week that it will remove the Polytrack and install a dirt surface for its fall meeting. Del Mar made a similar decision last month, and Santa Anita got rid of its synthetic track in 2010. But the decision by Keeneland – a power in the Thoroughbred industry – signaled that the movement to synthetic surfaces is finished in the United States.

The changeover to synthetics was triggered by a series of events in 2006. Barbaro’s fatal breakdown in the Preakness triggered nationwide discussions about horse safety. That summer, both Arlington Park and Del Mar experienced epidemics of breakdowns that generated more bad publicity for the sport. Arlington and all of the major California tracks would soon replace their dirt surfaces. Keeneland not only installed Polytrack in the fall of 2006 but became a partner of the company that manufactured it.

The premise that racing surfaces were principally responsible for breakdowns was a simplistic view of a complex problem. Medication policies, trainers’ methods, and breeders’ decisions have all contributed to the fragility of contemporary American Thoroughbreds, but these factors are hard to fix. The installation of the new surfaces – which were mostly made of rubber, fiber, sand, and wax – was a way to demonstrate that the sport was addressing the safety issue.

When regulators and track executives discussed synthetic tracks, they focused almost exclusively on safety. They didn’t ask how the new surfaces would affect the sport of racing. Would it be changed? In 2006, most people assumed that synthetic surfaces would resemble dirt, except that they would be safer and easier to maintain.

The various synthetic tracks – Polytrack, Tapeta, Cushion Track, Pro-Ride – fulfilled their promise about horse fatalities. A study by The Jockey Club showed that the catastrophic injury rate on synthetics was significantly lower than on dirt. However, many trainers and veterinarians maintain that horses are more susceptible to hind-end and soft-tissue injuries on synthetics, so the safety argument wasn’t quite as clear-cut as the fatality numbers suggest.

Most synthetic tracks held up well in inclement weather; they were always labeled “fast.” Nevertheless, the promise that they would be easy to maintain proved dead wrong. Seasonal changes and daily temperature changes affect the surfaces significantly, and tracks were plagued with maintenance problems. And they had a relatively short life span. The base of Del Mar’s track was disintegrating after seven summers of use.

But the biggest surprise about the new surfaces was the answer to the question that hadn’t been asked in 2006: What would the racing be like?

Fans quickly observed that it bore little resemblance to dirt. While American breeders have always emphasized speed and handicappers have always understood the importance of early speed, synthetic tracks didn’t favor it. (When Polytrack made its debut at Keeneland, bettors got a quick education when only one of the first 48 races was won by a front-runner.)

Horses with good dirt form often didn’t reproduce it on the new surfaces; turf specialists adapted better to synthetic tracks. When the Breeders’ Cup held its championship events on Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride in both 2008 and 2009, every race was won by a turf or synthetic-track specialist; dirt runners all failed, including the country’s best horse, Curlin.

The profound difference between synthetic tracks and dirt undermined racing in Kentucky, in the view of many horseplayers. Horses would race on Keeneland’s Polytrack in the spring, but their form would be nearly impossible to assess when they moved onto the dirt at Churchill Downs. The same inscrutability existed when the tracks ran their respective fall meetings. (Synthetic surfaces were more manageable for handicappers at a track such as Woodbine, where horses run on Polytrack from April through December, with few dirt horses shipping in.)

Keeneland’s two short meetings have traditionally been a showcase for the nation’s best Thoroughbreds. Stakes such as the Blue Grass, Ashland, Spinster, Alcibiades, and Breeders’ Futurity used to draw top horses from all over the country; the roster of their winners is filled with champions – prior to 2006.

Now, the country’s good dirt runners rarely show up. Not one serious Kentucky Derby candidate is in the Blue Grass. The probable favorite is Bobby’s Kitten, strictly a grass runner, and most of the other entrants are unworthy of a Grade 1 stakes.

Yet Keeneland is abandoning its synthetic surface with great reluctance – as is Del Mar. Keeneland president Bill Thomason has said that he hoped Polytrack would become so accepted that “everybody would have it.” Del Mar president Joe Harper has been a staunch supporter of synthetic surfaces, but with the rest of Southern California now racing on dirt, he acknowledged, “We can’t be the only one.”
In retrospect, the push for synthetic surfaces in 2006 was ill-considered, hasty, and a bit arrogant. A small number of the sport’s leaders were saying, in essence, “We are going to change the fundamental nature of horse racing in America, and we want everyone to fall in line with us.” Upon seeing what the future would look like, too many people – the sport’s customers, especially – wanted no part of it.

© 2014 The Washington Post

Mike G. Rutherford More than 1 year ago
Well written !
Mike G. Rutherford More than 1 year ago
well written !
Robert Danna More than 1 year ago
This is a good article - It's the only thing Andy Beyer can talk about in essence be "Right On" Dirt had it's up's and downs but NON -Dirt was a full Blowout! For Turf Horses, Non-Dirt was the answer to them being able to run on another surface other than TURF. Yes, Mr. Beyer is correct here, but as far as SPEED RATINGS and having any Idea of picking horses, he lacks the ability completely
John Nicoletti More than 1 year ago
President Obama, said the same thing in 2008, when loudly proclaimed, he was going to fundamentally change America. Look at the result. the same applies to the synthetic racing surface. A disaster. How did horse racing get this far when racing on dirt all these years. If it aint broke, don't fix it.
BigSkyEquine More than 1 year ago
Inappropriate medication practices and the allowance of raceday performance enhancing drugs were and are primarily responsible for increased breakdowns. Dirt tracks will not change that, but the banning of raceday medication will. Where Lasix is allowed, horses breakdown ~4X as often. Where Lasix is illegal, purses and handles increase on a regular basis. The Arc de Triomphe purse has just been raised to $7million American dollars, my friends.
Steven More than 1 year ago
Synthetic surfaces are used at a few British tracks to host the lowest grade of racing imaginable. Of course the bookmaking fraternity love anything that will produce revenue. Good horses can reproduce their form on different suraces: Dayjur, Go and Go from grass to dirt. Wesley Ward's record at Royal Ascot show the same from dirt to grass. It's significant that Sheikh Mohammed will be removing Tapeta at Meydan, to install what was very successful at Nad Al Sheba-a traditional dirt track. What goes around, comes around!
Howard Marks More than 1 year ago
I think you are incorrect about good horses reproducing their form on different surfaces. Of course, some can, but for the most part dirt is dirt, and turf is turf.
francis healy More than 1 year ago
get rid ofit
Robert Danna More than 1 year ago
Horses with good dirt form often didn’t reproduce it on the new surfaces; turf specialists adapted better to synthetic tracks. When the Breeders’ Cup held its championship events on Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride in both 2008 and 2009, every race was won by a turf or synthetic-track specialist; dirt runners all failed, including the country’s best horse, Curlin. The above statement made by Mr. Beyer is incorrect. Zenyatta was not a Grass or synthetic specialist. She won on the EAST and WEST coast on DIRT and Synthetic and she BEAT the BEST Horse racing had to offer. Mr. Beyer is just Pissed because his speed ratings don't work on synth.s very well .. and what about in 1973, when He bitched about how BIG RED was not the horse to win the triple Crown.. I'm sorry Beyer is a liar and so is the Horse racing leaders. a Sorry Bunch indeed!
Richard Cadena More than 1 year ago
Robert, You rightly point out that the few handicappers and commentators that get paid for giving their comments were not quick to adapt their speed numbers or whatever their systems were to horses running on the synthetics. The Beyer numbers, as you state, were for dirt tracks not synthetic tracks. It was maybe easier for them to mobilize against the synthetics rather than figure out the synthetics. Later, Beyers for the synthetics appeared. The DRF and the Washington Post came out with articles to add to the pile. Read the DRF article, if you haven't already, by Marcus Hersh; it is called the Sun sets on the synthetics. And then this article by Beyer that was printed in the DRF. The synthetics upset the comfort zone of a few at the DRF; many writers at DRF have been part of the campaign to go back to the future with the dirt-tracks. But for Keeneland to pull the plug on their synthetic track, despite it getting praise for being one of the safe tracks, you can see how close the interests of the dirt-track dominant status quo interlock. Had Zenyatta run on the East Coast dirt-tracks she would have been given more due publicity. But because she also ran on the synthetic surface, the East Coast pundits often downplayed or had a need to qualify her efforts. They could have parlayed the massive attention Zenyatta received from the other media and used it to grow the sport’s fan base; but a few, like at the DRF, didn't; most likely because they could not get past their narrow view of runners. Like cutting off the nose to spite the face. The public was way ahead of the few Luddite pundits. The great runners don’t need to carry their track with them.
Charmiann Kononchu8k More than 1 year ago
She won on the EAST and WEST coast? So tell me when she raced on the East coast?
Richard Cadena More than 1 year ago
Zenyatta ran on the dirt tracks in Kentucky (Churchill Downs) and in Arkansas (the Apple Blossom), Those two states may not be the East Coast but I think the main point is that Zenyatta excelled on any surface, since she opted to travel to Kentucky and Arkansas to compete on the highest levels; both Churchill Downs and Oaklawn in Arkansas are dirt tracks. There is a Kentucky-New York alliance of sorts; at least in their biases; for example, their synthetic track disdain and their misguided partiality for the dirt tracks. What was surprising was that Keeneland Race Track, based in Kentucky, with one of the safer tracks thanks to the synthetic surface, caved in to that Kentucky-New York bloc. Zenyatta showed greatness in racing against the highest level of competition. Not only did she compete in Kentucky, but she picked the most difficult race to run in: the 2010 Breeder's Cup Classic; she had never raced on the Churchill Downs dirt track before the Classic. Had the Classic been held at Belmont, she would have run. So the main point is that the great ones excel no matter what the surface or track or state. In 2009, she was the first female thoroughbred to win the Breeder's Cup Classic, which was run on a different surface: the synthetic track. Also, since it appears Beyer was more interested in giving his personal opinions, he made a few other broad statements; one relates to Curlin being the best horse in this country in 2008 and 2009, or something similar. I believe Curlin did not race in 2009; But B. was more interested in making broad statements. And the best horse in America in 2009 was Zenyatta.
Robert Danna More than 1 year ago
Try Oaklawn in the Southeast three times she ran there and won - and you tell me About Racheal - Why when she had the chance, did not run iin the Breeders cup against Zenyatta - I'll tell you why, she was not the Great horse everyone out EAST said she was.. She LOST to Zenyatta's stable mate ZARDANNA, unable to give her weight and unable to handle a 50K claimer... thanks for you inputs - but stick the harassment, it suits you better!
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Drove back from Keeneland today after a great weekend along with 54,000 plus fans on Friday and Saturday combined. I really hate to disagree with Beyers' last sentence but that's how it went.
James McGaughan More than 1 year ago
I am so glad the plastic is gone. That's not horse racing it's GARBAGE. Hello dirt and welcome back Keenland. Let synthetics and it's cheerleaders be gone.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Stay tuned... Their gonna stockpile the stuff and store it right there on the grounds.