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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
Well written !
well written !
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
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.
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.
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!
get rid ofit
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!
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.
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.