02/16/2008 12:00AM

Fatalities decline on Golden Gate's Tapeta

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ALBANY, Calif. - Golden Gate Fields installed a synthetic Tapeta surface prior to its 2007 fall-winter meet in the hopes it would lead to a decrease in serious injuries and fatalities. After one meeting on Tapeta, figures from California Horse Racing Board equine director Dr. Rick Arthur and comments from trainers and veterinarians indicate the track accomplished its goal.

According to Arthur, there was a 31 percent decrease in fatalities per starters at the fall-winter meet compared with the Golden Gate meetings of Jan. 1, 2004 through June 10, 2007, which were run on a conventional dirt track.

There were 12 racing fatalities from 4,002 starters during the recently concluded meeting, which ran from Nov. 7 to Feb. 3. The figures translate to 1 fatality for every 334 starters. Not included in those statistics were one fatality from a pulmonary hemorrhage and one fatality caused by a fall over a downed horse.

From Jan. 1, 2004, through June 10, 2007, there were 72 racing fatalities from 18,445 starters - or 1 for every 256 starters. Excluded from those figures were three incidents of sudden death and one fatality from a starting gate accident.

Most of the fatalities during the fall-winter meet came before Jan. 1, when the weather was extremely cold and dry. Golden Gate Fields general manager Robert Hartman said there was a learning curve in regard to track maintenance of the Tapeta, a wax-coated mixture of sand, rubber, and fiber.

"We learned when the track is cold and dry, it needs water," he said. "I think we'll learn this spring when the temperature is 75 degrees what to do to keep the track safe."

During the final month of the meeting, from Jan. 7 through Feb. 3, there was only one fatal breakdown. Hartman said the reduction in deaths coincided with Golden Gate using lighter harrows to work the track and heavy rains that kept the track wetter.

Before installation of Tapeta, officials expected the synthetic surface would need less water than the old dirt track, which Hartman said used 120,000 gallons of water a day. Hartman said no water was added to the track during the meet because morning fog and rain provided sufficient moisture. But, he said, water will have to be added to the track for the upcoming spring meet, which begins in May, and he estimated 20,000 gallons a day would be used.

Hartman said he is considering a recommendation by Tapeta inventor Michael Dickinson that Golden Gate install a sprinkler system, although it would not be in place until the fall.

Trainers offered virtually universal praise for the surface throughout the meeting, and they were particularly pleased with the way it held up during the heavy rains that have hit California this winter. Santa Anita has had to cancel 11 racing days because of drainage problems with its Cushion Track, but Golden Gate did not have a surface-related cancellation at its latest meet. Horses have been able to train without interruption over the surface.

Although neither the track nor the CHRB has kept track of the number of injuries sustained by horses over the Tapeta, anecdotal evidence suggests there has been a decrease.

Track veterinarian Dr. Diane Isbell, private veterinarian Dr. Don Smith, and several trainers said they have noted a decrease in injuries since the surface was installed.

"The surface helped horses," Isbell said.

Smith credited the softer consistency of the Tapeta and its ability to absorb the concussion of horses' hooves as reasons for a decrease in injuries. He added that he thought injuries had been less severe than when the horses raced on dirt.

"We've seen a great improvement in general health," Smith said.

Trainers Billy Morey and Steve Sherman said injuries seemed to decrease as the meet went on. Early in the meet, they saw a broad spectrum of injuries, including the concussion-type of injuries common on dirt tracks. As the meet went on, they said they saw a decrease in that type of injury, although there was no decrease in body soreness, sore backs, and soft-tissue injuries.