Updated on 01/18/2013 5:55PM

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.