07/28/2008 11:00PM

New York explores synthetics

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A task force set up by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board to examine health and safety issues for racehorses began to gather information on synthetic racing surfaces at a forum on Tuesday in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The forum, held at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion, included panels for track executives, veterinarians, trainers, jockeys, and researchers. Most of the panelists have appeared at other seminars focusing on synthetic surfaces, which are currently in place at nine major racetracks in North America.

Jackson Knowlton, the managing partner of Sackatoga Stables and a member of the task force, said after the discussions that the forum was designed to give the 13 task force members a wide range of opinions on the surfaces, which have proved to be somewhat controversial. The task force is co-chaired by State Agriculture Commissioner Patrick Hooker and Racing Board Chairman Daniel Hogan.

Dan Toomey, a spokesman for the racing board, said regulators are not currently considering a mandate that would require state racetracks to install the surfaces. The task force is expected to

issue a recommendation to the

legislature by the end of next summer regarding "the best course of action for these surfaces," Toomey said, after an analysis of the costs and benefits of the tracks.

California is the only state in the U.S. that has required some of its racetracks to install synthetic surfaces. The California Horse Racing Board approved the mandate in 2006 after data from Kentucky's Turfway Park - the first track to install a synthetic surface - showed a significant decline in fatalities.

Supporters of the surfaces contend the tracks are safer on horses, and preliminary data has appeared to back up that claim. Many racetracks, however, have been reluctant to install the surfaces until more data is collected.

The New York Racing Association, which operates the state's three largest tracks - Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga - is currently weighing its options for synthetic surfaces, according to Charlie Hayward, NYRA's chief executive, who appeared on the first panel at the seminar on Tuesday.

According to participants, trainer Todd Pletcher said he would support the installation of a synthetic surface on a training track inside Belmont Park's inner turf course. Knowlton said Hayward was generally supportive of the idea.