11/28/2014 3:43PM

Hovdey: Synthetic experiment ends a noble failure

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Sunday’s ninth race at Del Mar marks the bitter end of the synthetic-track era in Southern California. Will the last horse out the door please sweep up?

What began in 2006 as a grand experiment designed to reverse an unacceptable trend in racing and training fatalities will fold quietly in a 6 1/2-furlong maiden race for 2-year-olds worth a purse of $56,000. A full field will run.

With Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track and Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surfaces long gone, and now Del Mar’s Polytrack heading for the heap, it is probably best to just turn the page and pray for safe and sane maintenance of the dirt tracks now being used at the various racing and training sites. Those sites currently include Santa Anita, Los Alamitos, San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, and Fairplex Park, although Fairplex will be available only for a few more months. Del Mar’s dirt should come on line by next spring. Up in Northern California, Golden Gate Fields is still racing on a Tapeta synthetic surface.

The good news is that Dennis Moore, who lorded over Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track surface before the place shut down, has been in charge of the dirt tracks at Santa Anita, Los Alamitos, and San Luis Rey Downs. Moore also was instrumental in securing the river-bottom material that will be used in the new Del Mar main track.

In the meantime, there are sample containers of Del Mar’s Polytrack at local tack shops with a sign begging people to bring a bucket and take as much as you want, beginning next week. This would be the definition of going out with a whimper.

Synthetics never really had a chance in Southern California. For starters, they were essentially an unfunded mandate by the California Horse Racing Board, which voted – with approval from horsemen’s groups – to require tracks to convert by 2008. The mandate came without further direction, which left the market open to competing synthetic-track companies, none of them with a long-term track record in U.S. climates under U.S. racing conditions. Craig Fravel, then Del Mar executive vice president and an early proponent of synthetics, noted, “The technology is still more art than science.”

More like finger painting. At various points along the agonizing learning curve, there were ripples and tears in the subsurface layer at Hollywood Park, a complaint of toxic contamination, and severe drainage problems at Santa Anita that in one case threatened a presentation of the Breeders’ Cup.

Del Mar’s experience with Polytrack went something like this:

◗ Summer 2006 – A total of 19 horses are euthanized during the Del Mar meet, freaking out the local media and pushing even industry writers to deploy screaming references to the dirt track as a “killing field.” The dirt track, without hesitation, is blamed.

◗ Summer 2007 – Del Mar unveils its new Polytrack surface with a media event inviting one and all to walk the track and dig in a toe. I allow my daughter, not yet 2, to wallow around in the waxy, light gray material like it’s a high-tech sandbox, which essentially it is. I forget if I told her to immediately wash her hands.

Fatalities decline to nine for the meet. Student Council wins the Pacific Classic with a 1 1/4-mile time of 2:07.29 on a sunny day. Owner Ahmed Zayat pulls his 27 horses from Del Mar because the track is too slow.

◗ Summer 2008 – The Polytrack is watered and tightened, and times are accordingly faster. The six-furlong Bing Crosby, a Grade 1 event, is won by Street Boss in 1:08.67, compared with the 1:11.06 it took In Summation to win the same race in 2007.

◗ Summer 2009 – Another adjustment, as maintenance crews struggle with the difference between the amount of moisture required to keep the Polytrack consistent from morning to afternoon. There is not enough data to prove that synthetic surfaces like Del Mar’s are safer, and there are 12 fatalities related to the main track during the season. Rick Arthur, the California Horse Racing Board’s equine medical director, warns, “To think that this is only a racetrack problem and that we will solve the problem by fixing the racetracks is terribly naive.”

◗ Summer 2010 – Controversial track superintendent Steve Wood is out, and Rich Tedesco is in. Tedesco, who supervised an emergency triage of Santa Anita’s synthetic surface, is handed a thankless task after the frustrating fine-tuning since the Del Mar Polytrack installation. Zenyatta, who actually refuses to train one morning, ships to Hollywood Park and then back to Del Mar for the Clement Hirsch, which she wins by a head over the unheralded Rinterval.

◗ Summer 2011 – Tedesco, still practicing an art form, was able to narrow the variant between morning and afternoon. The six main-track racing-training fatalities are comparable to 2010, when there were five. Tedesco, however, concedes that the subsurface lining of the main track is beginning to deteriorate and is counting the days when a major renovation – or replacement – will be necessary.

Tedesco was able to hold off that expensive retreatment of the Polytrack surface until the spring of 2014, but by that time, it had been announced that Del Mar would be returning to a dirt surface following its first fall meet later in the year. Santa Anita already had gone back to dirt in 2010, Hollywood was closed, and the expanded dirt surface at Los Alamitos was up and running.

“We can’t go it alone,” said Joe Harper, Del Mar president. And he was right. In the end, it was a hell of a seven-year ordeal, over a road paved with waxed sand, little bits of rubber, recycled carpet fibers ... and good intentions.

Chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Safe and sane is the key. When we see a meeting with a spate of track records, we see breakdowns go up. It appears that a track cushion of less than 4 inches is heading us toward trouble.
johnd More than 1 year ago
Been playing the horses for almost 50 years. Said back in 2007 the plastic tracks were a disgrace and I absolutely refused to bet a race---ever--on a plastic surface. I was demonized by horsemen for my position. But, aha, look what has happened. All I can say is "good-bye and good riddance". I remember Keeneland's hype for the plastic: "It's all about the horse, of course". Baloney! It was all about the almighty dollar and the allure of saving millions of dollars on dirt track maintenance. Again: Good-by and good riddance"!
harpharper . More than 1 year ago
Thank God it's OVER!!!
Suzanne Sugarbaker More than 1 year ago
The Jockey Club has been collecting statistics for the Equine Injury Database since July 2008. On March 31st of this year, they released five years of statistics from the data collection done from 2009 - 2013. These data are clear that fatal Thoroughbred injuries on the dirt are not quite DOUBLE the amount of the deaths on synthetic. I very rarely see any articles about dirt vs synthetic mention these statistics and are champions for racehorse safety. This is discouraging. I see all sorts of discussion like the above article, and NOBODY seems to mention the equine athletes and their safety. (Which also includes jockey safety, since the jocks can become injured when their horse breaks down). Why is this? Are horses just livestock, to be used and then discarded? It seems like it. Or do the horses deserve a profound attention to their health and safety? Does an owner who pays $750,000 for a Thoroughbred at auction deserve a better chance for that investment to live through their racing campaigns? Oh, yeah. It doesn't matter; we have insurance. I believe that Thoroughbred racing would have a better public reception, and a better chance to survive, then to thrive, if there were less fatal injuries at the racetrack. I view the loss of synthetic tracks to be a disaster. Even Sheik Mohammed has had a change of heart. Maydan's Tapeta has been discarded in favor of dirt. The safety of the horse is secondary to other concerns. Oh yeah. We have insurance. It doesn't matter.
raymond More than 1 year ago
Suzanne you have not truthful with us or your self. Tell us what facts do you have to say that a phony baloney surface of recycled junk is safer to the thoroughbred. You don't know what you're talking about. When you absolute fact based arguments come back and we will listen. Until then do your home work.
Rich Pavone More than 1 year ago
One of the problems with the statistics is that they compare the synthetic tracks which are at major circuits with better horses and track maintenance, to all other tracks. ' Tracks at minor circuits have cheaper horses and fewer resources to maintain their track surface. To do a valid comparison you'd have to take stats only from major tracks that had just been resurfaced. I'll be very interested in the first few years of stats from Santa Anita and Delmar after the resurfacing to compare injury rates to their synthetic track era. I doubt if you'll see the disparity you see in the Jockey club stats quoted above
Ann Maree More than 1 year ago
There could be other factors besides surfaces contributing to horse injuries. Consider the numbers of changes in the sport that have occurred over the past 30-40 years: * the use of drugs on race day -- Lasix alone is believed to contribute to the weakening of the musculoskeletal systems of horses. * more sprints and shorter races (requires horses to run faster earlier in a race, rather than gradually building up to faster speeds) * the over breeding to weak, injury-prone "Classic" lines ("breed for speed") * "hot-housing" young horses; run-ups of yearlings at sales * conditioning and training methods have drastically changed over the years, to the point that many horses stand in their stalls 20-22 hours a day (In Europe and elsewhere, horses are trained away from the track where they are allowed to be turned out even while in training) * it is generally recognized that horses today are more fragile than they were many years ago. Starts per year have dropped from 11 to about 6 since 1960; career starts are way down. Are horses more fragile, or are the newer training and conditioning methods making them more fragile, including the use of legal drugs.. * racing and training in one direction on tracks all graded toward the rail, making horses have a slight displacement between their left and right sides, Even NASCAR adjusts for this difference in the wheelbases of their race cars! Track and field runners adjust for the track slant in their training and conditioning. Overseas, they tend to run in both directions, not just left- or right-handed. Some of these changes are very subtle, but taken over time, the way horses are conditioned and trained, and the way they are raced today may be contributing to the weakening of our Thoroughbreds, making them more susceptible to breakdown and injury than years ago. Just something to think about.