Updated on 01/18/2013 4:55PM

Steven Crist: Synthetic inner track would create more problems than it would solve

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Four months ago, New York state released the results of a comprehensive investigation into a spike in fatal equine breakdowns at Aqueduct last winter. The thoughtful and rigorous study, conducted by veterinary and racing experts and applauded by every segment of the industry, made more than 30 reasonable recommendations for improved safety protocols. It also repeatedly emphasized that there was nothing inherently unsafe about the Aqueduct inner track or the way it was maintained by the New York Racing Association.

So imagine the resounding “huh?” from the racing community when the state-controlled NYRA Reorganization Board issued a press release last Thursday that at its next meeting it will “consider” replacing the inner track with a synthetic racing surface for next year. (The report had briefly raised the issue but took no position and proposed no action.)

There is virtually no support or interest in bringing synthetic racing to New York from its horsemen, fans, or regulators, and no evidence that doing so would have any beneficial effects. It is bewildering that with so many other pressing issues facing NYRA, its newly appointed board is even considering the embrace of an unproven and largely unpopular change.

The impetus for this unsettling agenda item for next Friday’s board meeting appears to be that five horses have been euthanized since racing moved to the inner track Dec. 12. This is not an unusual number for any racetrack, and while it is a statistically insignificant sample size, it would project out to 12 to 14 fatalities for the entire inner-track meet, down from last year’s 21 but about the same as the median of 10 per meet over the previous decade.

It is far too early to gauge whether or not there has been or will be any benefit to the changes that have been instituted this winter, none of which have anything to do with the track surface itself. To make any decision about changing the track at this point would be premature and irresponsible, especially in the absence of any thoughtful consideration or formal study of the benefits or drawbacks of synthetic tracks. It is staggering to think that the 17 board members, including new state-appointed neophytes with little background in the sport, might casually institute a radical change that no one has recommended.

Perhaps the board members who actually participate in racing will explain the rocky history of synthetic racetracks over the last decade. Advocates of these surfaces claim they are generally safer, based on some statistics comparing breakdown rates at all American dirt tracks as opposed to synthetic ones. Others argue, however, that these comparisons are specious because every synthetic installation is a new and expensive one while many of the nation’s older dirt tracks are at poorly-maintained minor venues, and that investing in improvements to dirt tracks would yield the same statistical gains. Truer comparisons, such as between top-flight tracks offering simultaneous meetings on the different surfaces, suggest that dirt racing can be just as safe or safer.

There also is a growing body of evidence that switching surfaces merely swaps one type of injury for another less frequently reported variety, with horsemen reporting a higher incidence of hind-end rather than front-end injuries among horses who race and train on synthetic surfaces.

These differences can be debated endlessly, but there is no compelling mandate for change and the synthetic movement has lost its momentum. There are no synthetic installations being contemplated at any other tracks in the United States. Santa Anita tore out its synthetic track and went back to dirt two years ago, and there is informal chatter that at least one other major track is considering a similar change.

In the absence of any good reason to change surfaces, the NYRA Reorganization Board must consider the downside of any arbitrary or purely cosmetic decision to do so. Many of the New York horsemen who race on dirt the rest of the year would consider racing elsewhere next winter, and many fans would move their wagering business to out-of-town dirt tracks rather than trying to guess which horses might or might not take to a new surface. Any progress being made toward keeping quality horses in New York for the winter, and developing a better New York road to the spring classics, would probably be lost – and for what?

The NYRA board has a plate full of legitimate and pressing action items, including filling its top management positions, developing any kind of a long-term plan and vision, and repairing its increasingly dilapidated and uninviting facilities. Those issues, rather than a pointless distraction over synthetic surfaces, require and deserve its full attention.

The number of deaths at the current Aqueduct meeting was updated from a previous version of this story.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thank you AllanW, One just needs to look at Turfway as a great example of what a winter track should be. Why wouldn't the installation of poly at Aqueduct be new and expensive like the others. To say poly shouldn't be installed because it is better maintained than dirt for the most part makes zero sense. Sadly, Most 'handicappers" don't want what is best for the horse, they only want what's best for their wallet. Their against synthetic tracks and lasix bans because it affects their handicapping. Sad. Ask the horses at Turfway whos lives have been saved because of poly if synthetic surfaces are a "pointless distraction". Do your homework. You'd rather the facilities be updated for your own benefit than see horses lives saved. Turfway, Turfway, Turfway. I'm convinced it's drf's job to play devil's advocate to everything related to horse racing. Nothing new is ever a good idea. Every new idea is a bad one. Bunch of old men stuck in their ways unwilling to change for the good of the horse. All they care about is what's good for their betting.
AllanW More than 1 year ago
How many horses break down at Turfway poly winter meet vs Aqueduct inner dirt winter meet. If you were a betting man Steve, what would b the odds of the next fatal breakdown over Aqueduct vs Turfway. I'd say 2-5 for Aqueduct.
Tom Mina More than 1 year ago
Christ, you have no 'skin in the game' and you blast the 'proposal' of a synthetic surface?..Ask NY breeders, farm owners, veterinarians, blacksmiths, grooms, jockeys, exercise riders, van companies, feed suppliers, NYRA employees, maintenance employees, and YES owners if they would prefer a synthetic surface that would retain NYRA's winter venue?
Karusha More than 1 year ago
You folks that say "close down for the Winter" have no comprehension of the profit NYRA generates in the colder months. Just look at their P & L statements. Revenue in racing (for the most part) is generated by off site and internet wagering. Get used to it..Winter racing is a necessity for breeders and all the concomitant jobs it provides....We cant turn the clock back to the glory days of the 50's and 60's. And if you think horses didn't 'break down' then, think again...A synthetic surface would provide, the potential for Aqueduct to draw upon the best synthetic runners (instead of the worst dirt runners) while Arlington, Woodbine, Keeneland, Del Mar and Presque Isle are closed. The only synthetic competition would be second-rate tracks in Kentucky (Turfway) and California (Golden Gates), while the competition for dirt runners include the premier tracks of Gulfstream, Fairgrounds, Oaklawn, and Santa Anita--as well as the second rate tracks such as Parx (Pennsylvania) and Tampa Bay (Florida). When NYRA is scrambling to fill races with inferior dirt runners, I think it would be far easier to attract quality horses to NY for synthetic winter racing.
Ben van den Brink More than 1 year ago
http://www.grayson-jockeyclub.org/resources/peterson.pdf Racetracks investigations
PTWoodman More than 1 year ago
It would be interesting to see a statistical study done on injury / fatality based on field size. In other words do larger (crowded) fields yield more incidents. A review of the DRF data base comparing "DNF's" to "Field Size" might be revealing PTWoodman
Tom Smith More than 1 year ago
why change? everything is going so good right Steve?? horse racing what a joke
Raymond Hackinson More than 1 year ago
The option to race only four days a week with only eight races per day might be the only viable alternative. With the tougher drug laws, a reduced card seems the best way to go. Personally i like a smaleer field-five or six horses. I have caught several two/three hundred triples this meet. I dont necessarily feel an eleven/twelve horse field makes for an exciting contest.
Patricia Doyle More than 1 year ago
Some of these older horses go from one revolving door barn to the next. We all know who recycles horses day in and day out. Some of these horses have line after line indicating layoff after layoff. When I see these lines and a different jockey each time I stay away from betting those horses. An OC25k is sometimes the premier race offered on a NY Winter race card. No wonder these horses break down. Winter is hard on people with injuries so just imagine what subfreezing damp weather does to a racing older horse coming back after another layoff. If they can't fill the card with quality horses, go dark for the winter Dec 15 - March 15th in NY. We can bet Fla, Ca, Louisiana via internet, phone etc With simulcasting and racino gambling the NY tracks won't go broke. Only other thing to do is offer purses that will keep quality in NY. I can only imagine the chaos when older, not so well cared for claiming horses, get on a synthetic surface on a cold damp winter's day. No one thinks about the horses or the bettors these days.
Ben van den Brink More than 1 year ago
The winter leftovers (bottom, claimers and horses with troubled pasts) are just contributing to the track problems.