04/04/2014 3:45PM

Hovdey: Casner sees Keeneland switch from synthetic track as backsliding

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Now that Keeneland has put a stake in the heart of the great American experiment with engineered racing surfaces with its announcement this week that it would be replacing its Polytrack with dirt, it seemed like a good time to tune in with Bill Casner, an outspoken proponent of the synthetic technology over the past decade.

On a personal level, Casner unabashedly attributes synthetics to the success of his two best racehorses, Well Armed and Colonel John. Well Armed won the $6 million Dubai World Cup in 2009 by 14 lengths in its final running at Nad al Sheba, while Colonel John scored his greatest triumph in the 2008 running of the Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Both races were on dirt, but don’t bother with the head-scratching because Well Armed and Colonel John did the preponderance of their training on synthetic surfaces in Southern California.

“There is no way Well Armed would have held up training on dirt,” Casner said. “He toed in, a conformational defect that would never have held up training on dirt alone. That is why I sent him to England as a young horse and why he did so well when California tracks went to synthetic surfaces.”

But Casner is far more concerned with the larger picture than horses in his own backyard (where Well Armed is happily retired and in training as a jumper). In his role as a former partner of the large WinStar Farm operation in Kentucky and a successful breeder and owner in his own name, Casner has served the industry as an outspoken advocate for safer surfaces and a more rational approach to medication use.

Casner sees the abandonment of synthetic tracks not only as a denial of black-and-white statistical data – which indicates equine fatality rates are significantly less on synthetic surfaces – but also a stubborn refusal to understand the physical dynamics of the Thoroughbred in motion and the relationship of the racehorse stride to what is referred to as racetrack slide.

On any track, each foot in the stride of a horse will spend a certain amount of time sliding across the top of the racing surface. The more time a horse’s foot spends on the ground, supporting its weight and absorbing concussion, the more likely bad things can happen.

“One of the things that make synthetics so advantageous is the ability to control slide without causing an abnormal amount of concussion,” Casner said. “The ideal amount of slide is about three or four inches. Most dirt tracks have slides that vary from six to 12 inches.

“Any time you have a longer slide factor, you magnify conformational faults – and 99 percent of horses have conformational faults,” Casner went on. “The more time a limb that toes in or out spends sliding on a dirt track, the more torque you put on that limb. And the more torque you put on the limb, the greater the chance for injury.”

So, why can’t a dirt track be modified to reduce slide to the more optimum three inches offered by synthetics?

“You can,” Casner replied. “But if you do, you sacrifice the energy absorption of the surface, and it becomes a much harder racetrack. Synthetic surfaces give you both the absorption of concussion and the control of slide.”

The California experiment with a variety of synthetic surfaces at its major tracks – now abandoned except for Golden Gate Fields – was fraught with maintenance issues that gradually turned sentiment from an embrace of the new technology to frustration and opposition. Casner, and his fellow proponents of synthetics, insist the growing pains were worth it.

“As long as the maintenance is adhered to – and we’ve progressed light years in maintaining these surfaces – you can create an incredibly safe racetrack to train and race over,” Casner said.

Now, however, synthetics have been marginalized. Casner predicts that the next set of breakdown and fatality data will revert to the grim, pre-synthetic era, despite the fact that racetracks like Keeneland and Del Mar insist their reconverted dirt tracks will be safer than ever.

Casner has circled Keeneland’s decision to return to a dirt surface as a dark day for the sport, especially in light of data released by The Jockey Club indicating that there continue to be fewer racehorse fatalities associated with synthetic surfaces compared to conventional dirt surfaces.

“I struggle to understand the thought process behind changing to a surface that you know is going to increase fatalities,” Casner said. “When a horse breaks down any time, it’s a terrible thing. But when a horse breaks down in front of the grandstand in the afternoon, two things happen: People will turn around and leave the track in droves, never to return, and a jockey will go down and be injured to some degree, whether it’s a bruise or paralysis. When there are agendas placed above the safety of horses and riders, to me, it is unconscionable,” he said. “Our industry is under a microscope right now, and any time anything bad happens, it goes viral – Twitter, YouTube, all over the world, in every language. This is a different world, and we are going to be held accountable for the welfare of these horses.”