10/12/2006 11:00PM

Polytrack safety: So far, so good

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - When Keeneland announced earlier this year that it would install an artificial racing surface, track officials said that one of the principal reasons was to cut down on injuries and fatal breakdowns.

So far, so good. Through the first five days of racing, no horse suffered a catastrophic breakdown on the new main-track surface, which is called Polytrack and composed of a mix of wax-coated synthetic materials and sand. Keeneland is a part-owner of the company that manufactures and installs Polytrack.

Keeneland, like any other track in the country, has not been immune to catastrophic breakdowns. In fact, according to statistics kept by the chief veterinarian of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, 21 horses have suffered fatal breakdowns over the past three years while running at Keeneland, comprising a total of 18 weeks of racing. The statistics do not indicate whether the horses broke down on the turf course or the dirt course that has since been replaced.

Though the sample size is small, the fall meet, which typically runs for three weeks in October, has been more dangerous than the track's spring meet over the past three years. According to the statistics, which were provided by Linda Underwood, the authority's new executive director, four horses were euthanized at Keeneland in the fall of 2003 compared with two during that year's spring meet; in 2004's fall meet, six horses suffered fatal breakdowns compared with three during the spring meet, and last year, three horses were humanely destroyed during the fall meet compared with two in the spring.

At the spring meet this year, three horses suffered fatal breakdowns, including Up an Octave, the winner of the Forerunner Stakes, who broke down after the wire on the turf course, and Dance Daily, a Grade 2 winner who suffered a condylar fracture when going into the turn on the main track in the Grade 2 Beaumont Stakes.

Another statistic that can track racing injuries is the number of times that the ambulance is called to administer to a horse. In the 2004 spring meet, the first for which the authority began tracking the number, the ambulance was called five times; in the 2004 fall meet, 10 times; in the 2005 spring meet, eight times; in 2005 fall, nine times, and in 2006 spring, six times.

Evidence of the safety of artificial surfaces compared to traditional dirt surfaces for racing is limited so far to Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., where an artificial surface was installed just prior to the track's fall racing meet in September 2005, and Woodbine Racecourse outside Toronto, which began racing on a Polytrack on Aug. 30.

During Turfway's race meets from September to April, three horses suffered catastrophic breakdowns while racing, compared with 24 fatal injuries during the comparable period in 2004 and 2005. Because Turfway did not cancel any race days during that period in 2005 and 2006 - compared with 11 cancellations during the comparable period in the 12 months prior - the reduction in breakdowns was actually tenfold when using the number of starts to compare the rate.

This year during the 22-day September meet at Turfway, one horse suffered a catastrophic breakdown on the Polytrack, according to Sherry Pinson, the track's communications director. At the prior fall meet, also over the Polytrack, no horses suffered fatal breakdowns, while at the 2004 fall meet, at least three horses broke down over the dirt track.

At Woodbine Racecourse, the raw numbers have not been as encouraging over six weeks of racing on Polytrack versus five months on dirt. According to Dr. Greg Taylor, the chief veterinarian for the Ontario Racing Commission, three horses have suffered fatal breakdowns over Polytrack since Aug. 30, compared to three catastrophic breakdowns over the traditional dirt racing surface from April 1 to Aug. 27. (Racing was conducted over the track's inner-course from July 8 to Aug. 27 as a temporary measure while the Polytrack was being installed).

However, Taylor said that the results from Woodbine prior to the Polytrack installation were highly unusual.

"We typically average about 15 to 20 catastrophic breakdowns a year" during Woodbine's nine-month meet, he said. "So this year, prior to the Polytrack, the numbers were really light. I hate to say this, but, statistically, we were due."

Taylor said that examinations of the horses that broke down over the Polytrack had indicated that the horses may have had pre-existing conditions that rendered them vulnerable.

"We found a lot of [microfractures in the horses' shins], so it's really hard to say how many of them were due to the track, or whether they were carried over from training year-round and racing year-round," Taylor said. "It's unfortunate, but we're still going to have horses break down, no matter what the surface."