04/04/2014 2:45PM

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.”

Ron Orwick More than 1 year ago
POLITICS - a dirty word wherever it's applied.
Bill McAvoy More than 1 year ago
All these fake dirt "proponents" are helping to kill the game. For one, nobody wants to bet on those races. For another, they are pushing the line that racing is a bad thing. The only way to prevent breakdowns is to ban racing. Fake dirt lovers are nothing but useful idiots for the PETA's of the world.
TomN More than 1 year ago
I am a fan[ how come nobody has used the term patron] another discussion for another time]....am all in with Mr. Casner who seems to have put a lot of time into the pros and cons
Beenthere Donethat More than 1 year ago
How about this Mr Casner? Every time a horse breaks down the trainer is fined $50,000. That would create the safest racing you ever saw on any surface. Perhaps it is time that the people in charge of taking care of the horses take responsibility for them, and stop blaming their failures on a surface.
William More than 1 year ago
the new look format .............REALLY SUCKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Pagani Zonda More than 1 year ago
They should make the font smaller.....lol.
Elaine Parkinson More than 1 year ago
I have to agree with Mr. Casner... "Our industry is under a microscope right now... and any time anything bad happens, it goes viral - ..." I have never had a problem handicapping Keeneland or Golden Gate when I concentrate solely on those tracks. I have a problem switching back to dirt and synthetic in the 10-15 (to handicap the next race/s) between the races. Dirt is easier to handicap and I can see how people get upset, however; I do believe that the safety is greater on synthetics (regardless of the "types" of upper area or the legs of the horse. I would think that the safety is better for the horse AND the jockey and I believe that the jockeys should be consulted on this. On the other hand, I wouldn't have an objection to just switching to turf racing 3 times a week. I think we have bred horses for Sprints and that the "instant gratification is too slow" mentality has been embedded in our Sport. We need to "change" and no one likes "change" no matter where or who they are.
Jerome More than 1 year ago
I agree!
Walter More than 1 year ago
When horse racing is compared to other major sports it's like apples & oranges. Horse racing is fueled by the gambling dollars. A majority of those gambling dollars come from compulsive gamblers. Since the track operators know this, they really don't have to be too customer friendly. Their opinion is don't worry the gamblers will be back, where else where they go? Well, that has been answered to some extent. Casinos, card rooms, online gambling & others have taken quite a bite from horse racing. Now horse racing is reeling badly. Other major sports have to worry about pleasing fans, advertisers & TV networks. As long as they keep those three entities happy, they will prosper. And it seems it's happening.
Pagani Zonda More than 1 year ago
I agree, but we need safe tracks for the horses to run over, that will keep them as safe as possible. That will keep horses running for the gamblers to bet on. HORSE FIRST, Gambler second.
Tekov Yahoser More than 1 year ago
My best days at the track was when there was some sort of bias (also some of my worse days!). How did not Velasquez get that lone speed down to the rail in 2004 and cost me a $125,000 P6 at AQU on one of the strongest inside biases of the decade? The only bias I could ever discern on synthetics is the ATM Bias.
Richard Cadena More than 1 year ago
“I struggle to understand the thought process behind changing to a surface that you know is going to increase fatalities,” If you cross reference this article with the Sunset article by Hersh and then read some of the posts here you see why horse racing is on the downslide. Any effort to improve the safety of horse and jockey is diverted by one concocted set of data but the major five-year data recently collected that clearly says the synthetic tracks are safer than the dirt tracks is ignored. For the speed freaks or addicts, why don't they focus on betting and watching the quarter horses, where speed does make a difference. The focus on breeding speed into horses and not wanting to keep the safer synthetic tracks because they slow down the speed is short-sighted and in the long run will contribute to turning off even more of the public/potential new betters. Horse racing has been way too slow in converting to new technology, whether in handling better TV coverage, like basketball did, or in how they are now dealing with making the race tracks safer, in an age in which Internet savvy customers are more aware of horse racing than apparently a few owners, breeders, scientific sounding writers or blog posters; everybody has their own point of view from their own angle. Even if you give credence to their criticism of the synthetic track, they have nothing to offer to improve the current dirt-tracks. Just keep things like they were 50 years ago. At the current juncture, horse racing needs to do more to bring in new customers, unless the market desired are the high rollers. As stated in this article, the most visible breakdowns have been the most damaging to horse racing, including the breakdowns of Barbaro and Eight Belles. Given the current stasis from most quarters in the horse racing industry, improving safety at the race tracks will be tabled, again. Until the next high visibility dirt-track fatality occurs, most likely there will be no sense of urgency to make the racing tracks safer. Just more garbage in, garbage out filled attacks and defenses.