04/03/2014 4:36PM

Sun sets on synthetic era

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Barbara D. Livingston
Keeneland announced Wednesday that its Polytrack main track, installed in 2006, will be replaced with dirt.

It was the morning of Sept. 13, 2004, when a small group of horses was allowed onto a new training track at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky. The five-furlong oval had been stripped of its old dirt track and covered in a surface new to North American racing, Polytrack, a wax-coated mixture of natural and synthetic materials.

“It’s absolutely awesome,” said retired jockey Patty Cooksey after breezing a horse. “It seems like the horses have springs on their feet.”

Martin Collins, the English designer and manufacturer of Polytrack, was in town, and Keeneland, a pillar of the American racing establishment, already had formed a partnership with Martin Collins Enterprises.

The quiet training-track unveiling struck Collins as momentous.

“To be honest, I think it’s going to change racing in America,” Collins said.

Collins’s grand prophecy once rang true. By the end of 2007, synthetic surfaces were being used for everyday racing at nine tracks across North America and seemed destined for further expansion. But now, less than 10 years after its origination, the synthetic-surfaces movement on this continent has withered, and a series of recent developments may signal the end of their everyday use as a racing surface in the United States.

In mid-February, Del Mar – the last of the Southern California synthetic tracks – announced that its 2014 meet would be its last on Polytrack. That was followed by rampant rumors in Dubai that the Tapeta surface at Meydan Racecourse will be replaced by dirt, owing to flagging American participation in the Dubai World Cup. And this week, the biggest bombshell of all: Keeneland, the entity that did more than any other to usher in the synthetics era, will replace its Polytrack racing surface with dirt.

“We were hopeful that when we installed a synthetic track, it would be the surface that America was going to embrace, and they did for a while,” Keeneland president Bill Thomason said in a telephone interview last month. “But at this point, clearly we see there’s a preference for horsemen in America – especially at the highest level – to race on a dirt surface.”

Keeneland has raced on Polytrack since 2006, and though its formal partnership with Collins dissolved in 2011, its surface, more than any other synthetic, has lived up to sales pitches proffered by Collins and the synthetics enthusiasts. These surfaces would stand up to rain and all manner of harsh weather, requiring minimal maintenance. They would end track biases and provide bettors with a superior gambling environment. And, most important, with racing wounded by the high-profile, catastrophic breakdowns of Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness and Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, synthetic tracks would make racing safer.

Data have shown synthetic surfaces succeeding in the very area they were supposed to most urgently address – reducing racing fatalities. But there have been problems with just about everything else. Synthetics may be no safer for daily training than a well-kept dirt surface, and they have cost racetracks millions of dollars to install and maintain during an economic downturn.

Maintenance and performance problems unforeseen before installation arose, and a core group of gamblers and horsemen turned against synthetics before issues could be resolved. Even as synthetic racing is thriving in some parts of the world, it has lost most of its relevance here.

No new synthetic surfaces have been installed in North America in seven years. With Keeneland out, the only remaining synthetic racetracks are at Woodbine, Arlington Park, Presque Isle Downs, Golden Gate Fields, and Turfway Park. All claim to be committed to retaining their surfaces, but they are increasingly swimming against the tide.

“Is it over? It would appear to be,” said Joe Harper, Del Mar’s president.

A constant battle

There were rocks coming up through the Polytrack at Del Mar last summer.

The petroleum base in the wax component of the surface had leached down to the track’s asphalt base, causing it to disintegrate, Harper said.

Suffice it to say, such a problem was never mentioned when the California Horse Racing Board in 2006 mandated that Del Mar, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Golden Gate Fields contract with synthetic-surface manufacturers to install new racetracks. Nor were most of the maddeningly pervasive maintenance challenges that arose when the surfaces were installed. On the contrary, low maintenance had been a major selling point of the surfaces.

“They were billed as low maintenance, and in hindsight, I think that was an unrealistic expectation,” said Bob Elliston, who was president of Turfway Park when Polytrack was installed in 2005. “They required as much maintenance as a dirt track and were more expensive to install. You hoped you’d realize economic benefits in maintenance, and it didn’t occur. We had to migrate to a more active track management program that wasn’t in place when we first put these surfaces in.”

The maintenance issues could fill an encyclopedia.

The first Polytrack season at Turfway Park, in 2005, was a roaring success in terms of racing safety, with no catastrophic racing breakdowns reported during the track’s winter meet, which previously had been plagued by cancellations and dangerous conditions. The surface, however, was dry and often created a storm of kickback. Alterations were made the following summer to reduce kickback, but that led to other problems. In the second year, the Turfway Polytrack balled up and clung to horses’ feet, causing myriad undesirable effects.

This would become a common theme: Address one problem, create a new one.

At Woodbine, the Polytrack honeymoon ended in months. When cold weather came in 2006, the surface became dry and difficult, and its composition had to be significantly altered late the next spring. “It’s broken,” was how Woodbine president and chief executive David Willmot described its Polytrack to Daily Racing Form just before the start of the track’s 2007 meet.

The estimated original installation cost of Woodbine’s synthetic surface: $10 million.

Hollywood Park and Santa Anita looked at the Polytrack problems back East and chose a different path, selecting Cushion Track instead. At Hollywood, the surface was roundly praised when it first came into use in 2006, but the situation – and the surface itself – rapidly deteriorated. Cushion Track, it turned out, required regular refurbishment; the material’s wax coating degraded faster than anyone had anticipated, and by 2008, Hollywood already was on its third reapplication.

“I think we all realize now that synthetic tracks wear out,” Hollywood president Jack Liebau said in July that year.

Hollywood’s experience was a cakewalk compared to Santa Anita’s. There, the Cushion Track was installed – at an estimated cost of $11 million – on the wrong type of sand base, and the surface never drained properly. The track lost 11 racing days during its 2007-08 meet and replaced Cushion Track with Pro-Ride during the summer of 2008. Within a year, Pro-Ride, too, was under siege. In January 2009, more than 40 trainers met with Pro-Ride’s founder and president, Ian Pearse, to tell him the surface was unacceptable.

Del Mar bucked the Southern California trend and went with Polytrack, but before its first synthetic meet opened in 2007, the surface was causing problems. Blame was placed on the absence of jelly cable, chopped up pieces of copper-wire insulation that were part of the original Polytrack formulation but left out of the Del Mar mixture because of environmental concerns. Training traffic was restricted before the first Polytrack meet even opened to try to preserve the surface, and maintenance problems have cropped up on an annual basis at Del Mar, which has radical temperature swings between morning training and afternoon racing.

“That roller coaster goes up and down,” Harper said during a troubled period in 2010.

The Tapeta track at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California has been one of the least-troubled synthetic surfaces, and even there, the maintenance enterprise has been tricky.

“For a time, horsemen were requesting water, but we found in 2009 and 2010 that if you water the surface for a long period of time, the track actually gets looser,” said Cal Rainey, vice president and assistant general manager at Golden Gate since 1984. “So, we added water to the track for a while, but it was washing the wax away from the sand, we thought, so we stopped putting water on in 2011.”

Rainey said Golden Gate likes its synthetic track and has confidence in it. He is grateful that Golden Gate installed Tapeta rather than one of the other synthetics. But Rainey said the whole process felt premature because “the tracks weren’t tested in a racing environment in the U.S.”

“We had no track record to go on,” Rainey said.

Guinea pigs

Experiments usually are conducted in a laboratory setting. This vast, fundamental one – changing dirt to synthetic – played out in the day-to-day reality of the racing world.

Darrell Vienna, a Southern California-based trainer and horsemen’s representative, was a synthetic-surface supporter at the beginning. By 2009, he was calling North American trainers stabled at synthetic tracks “guinea pigs.”

The rush to abolish dirt was especially frenetic in California, and it was not just the CHRB ramming through its synthetics mandate: The Thoroughbred Owners of California supported the move, and the board of the California Thoroughbred Trainers voted unanimously to support the CHRB’s mandate.

“I always felt – and still do – that we sort of took a leap of faith to put it in,” said Harper of Del Mar. “I got to admit, when we looked at it at Turfway and Keeneland, they were having excellent results. From all our observations, mainly in England and Europe, I couldn’t find anyone that disliked it.”

The success of synthetic surfaces in England was what convinced many North American racing people that they could work here, too. Synthetics debuted at an English racecourse in 1990. Polytrack was first installed on training gallops in the mid-1980s but was not employed by a racecourse until Lingfield Park began using it in 2001. Polytrack did well in England. Some bettors complained, suggesting it leveled performance to the degree that separating horses became nearly impossible, but the surface reduced weather-related cancellations, seemed simple to maintain, and it was safe.

This was everything North American tracks desperate for change sought. But there was one significant problem – these were North American tracks, not English tracks.

Two factors created a fatal chasm between most tracks in North America and the all-weather racecourses overseas: Weather and horse traffic. The temperature extremes in England are nothing like those at many North American venues that installed synthetics, and English racehorses mainly do their training away from the racecourse.

“It was found that the number of horses going over the surface during one month at Santa Anita was something like the number of horses going over the tracks in England during a period of years,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, the California Horse Racing Board’s equine medical director and a firsthand participant in the synthetics era.

Synthetic advocates talked about how durable the surface at Lingfield Park had proven, but comparing the effects of weather on track surface there with, say, Los Angeles was apples to oranges: One analyst found that one year of sun intensity at Hollywood Park was roughly the equivalent of two years at Lingfield.

And there exists one further monumental difference: England is filled with horses bred for turf, North America with horses bred for dirt.

“People shouldn’t compare dirt to synthetic,” said trainer Graham Motion, an English expatriate who won the Dubai World Cup over the Meydan Tapeta last year with Animal Kingdom. “They are totally different surfaces. Animal Kingdom handled the Tapeta because he handles turf. You can’t bring a dirt horse and expect them to do well.”

California, of all places, did not have an equine population or a trainer colony prepared for such a jarring transition. Speed, speed, and more speed – that was the historical norm there, and it was completely at odds with the new surfaces, particularly Del Mar’s. Bob Baffert, the Southern California kingpin, had a well-documented battle with Del Mar during the summer of 2007. The surface had sapped his horses’ greatest strength, their speed. Baffert sent a string to Saratoga.

Baffert hardly stood alone. Zenyatta did much of her racing on California synthetics, and she won the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic on Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride, but her trainer, John Shirreffs, did not like the way horses acted on synthetics, particularly the agonizingly slow early Polytrack at Del Mar.

“These are performance horses, and they’re supposed to perform at a high level,” Shirreffs said in 2008. “You’re taking that away from them.”

Trainers were not the only ones lamenting the diminishment of speed. Popular columnist Andrew Beyer, a voice of the gambler, was decrying the effect Polytrack had on performance before Keeneland’s first synthetic meet, in October 2006, had even ended.

“At Keeneland, [Polytrack] has given rise to a style of racing that is alien to most Americans,” Beyer wrote. “The most prized quality in Thoroughbreds – speed – has become a liability. Polytrack has turned the sport upside down. The people who have championed synthetic racing surfaces should take a careful look at Keeneland and decide if this bizarre, go-as-slow-as-you-can style of racing is what the sport really needs.”

Bettors were unhappy, trainers were displeased, but through firestorms of criticism, there remained one pillar of support. The outcry – within and outside racing – over the apparently dangerous nature of dirt surfaces had spawned the synthetics movement, and as long as the surfaces could be said to improve safety, they were fulfilling their core promise.

Safety factors

On many summer mornings, the main track at Arlington Park feels like a ghost town. Racetracks in North America are known for heavy traffic and controlled chaos during training hours. Arlington often is surprisingly serene.

“I go up there some days to work a horse with the first set at about 6 o’clock, and there will be five horses on the track,” said Hugh Robertson, who started training in 1976 and first stabled at Arlington in 1990. Robertson has long made use of Arlington’s small, irregularly shaped training track on the backstretch. The training track is close to his barn. It used to be a quiet place to get a horse away from the bustle of the big track. “That’s not so much the case anymore because so many people are training down there now,” Robertson said.

Arlington’s main-track surface was converted from dirt to Polytrack before the 2007 racing season following a toxic string of breakdowns in 2006. The racing fatalities set the local newspapers abuzz, though the rate of their occurrence – too high, to be sure – turned out by the end of the meet to have fallen close to seasonal norms.

Arlington experienced an average of 2.07 racing fatalities per 1,000 starters between 1996 and 2006 on dirt, compared with 1.42 during seven seasons of racing on Polytrack. During the 2013 season, Arlington had just three racing fatalities on Polytrack.

“By far the biggest positive attribute with Polytrack has been the reduction in catastrophic breakdowns,” said Arlington general manager Tony Petrillo.

Statistics collected on a wider scale and at other tracks have produced similar results. This past week, The Jockey Club, through the Equine Injury Database (EID), released a five-year record of racing fatality rates at North American tracks that showed significantly fewer racing fatalities occurring on synthetics than on turf or dirt.

“Realizing that there are limits, I think our fatality data is very good,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, the equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission who was instrumental in creating the EID.

In California, where unacceptably high breakdown rates on dirt spurred the synthetics revolution, reporting on racing fatalities has returned findings similar to the EID’s. The racing fatality rate at Presque Isle Downs in western Pennsylvania, which opened in 2007 with a Tapeta synthetic surface, is less than 1 per 1,000 starters.

If the best data the racing industry has collected strongly suggest that fewer horses catastrophically break down while racing on synthetics than on dirt, why do many Arlington horsemen choose the ungainly little dirt training track, with one turn hooking at nearly a 90-degree angle, over the spacious Polytrack?

The answer is obvious, and not restricted to Arlington: Many horsemen have not found synthetic surfaces safer than dirt for daily training.

“The first year Arlington had Polytrack, it was good, and I think the horses liked it,” said Robertson, who is no knee-jerk synthetic hater. “You could take horses that were not going good, and they went better on the Polytrack, but from the second year on, it started to take a toll on them.”

Anecdotal evidence like Robertson’s is about all the racing industry can summon in attempting to form conclusions about training safety across surfaces. While the EID has made huge strides in racing-fatality record-keeping, and work is being done to assemble data in other areas, most jurisdictions have no mechanism for the official reporting of injuries that do not involve a fatal breakdown during a race. Whether synthetics have ultimately increased safety during training is a question without a concrete answer.

“From the data I’ve looked at – and some of the historical data is a little difficult to interpret – it’s unclear to me if the synthetic surfaces are an improvement training-wise,” said Arthur, the California regulatory veterinarian.

Many horsemen and veterinarians have concluded that synthetic surfaces merely replaced a traditional suite of soundness problems on dirt with a new set of injuries. Synthetics can lessen concussion – which is why there are fewer front-leg fractures – but change the way a horse’s feet interact with the ground. Hooves stick more and slide less. The surfaces distribute the moving load of an animal differently than on dirt. There are beneficial and deleterious effects, but regardless of where a synthetic track is located and what brand of surface is employed, horsemen commonly complain of hind-end problems and soft-tissue injuries.

“The biggest issue has been different types of injuries.” Arthur said. “I think probably the best example is chip fractures. There are fewer chip fractures on synthetic surfaces than on dirt. That’s what we saw in California. But there are other sorts of injuries – back injuries, hind-end injuries, muscle injuries.”

Moreover, synthetic tracks – as Robertson suggests of Arlington – might be ill-suited to long-term heavy horse traffic. Overseas synthetic racetracks do not take a daily pounding from training, while surfaces there used solely for training have less daily traffic and are usually straight or gently bent, compared to the North American oval.

“On an oval track, the inside rail takes a beating,” said Dr. Mick Peterson, who, over the course of the synthetics era, has become the most prominent racing-surfaces analyst in North America. He is regularly summoned by tracks to measure surfaces during times of trouble, and, increasingly, as part of routine procedure.

Synthetics, even with refurbishment, simply wear out and break down under the strain of American-style training, for which they were not originally developed.

“When people have always said this could be a great training surface, I say, no, that’s not right,” Peterson said.

Increasing awareness

Peterson has a Ph.D. in ultrasonics, and he knew nothing of horse racing when, in 1995, he started working with a group of scientists at Colorado State University measuring stress placed on horses during exercise. The studies began on a treadmill before being moved to a natural surface outside.

“I naively asked what standards we were trying to match,” Peterson said. “At that point, I found out there were no standards.”

Nobody was applying hard science to the intersection of racehorses and racing surfaces – but they’re trying to now. By the mid-2000s, Peterson, a professor at the University of Maine, had developed a machine – a biomechanical track tester – that simulates the loads and speeds of a racehorse’s front leg to measure the hardness and slide of a surface. Peterson has other tricks in his bag, like ground-penetrating radar that provides a snapshot of a surface and its underlying base. He already had started testing dirt surfaces when the synthetic era began; Peterson was probing the Keeneland training track in its Polytrack infancy. The timing was impeccable. When problems arose with the synthetic surfaces that were supposed to cure dirt’s ills, it was Peterson, more often than not, who was called in for analysis.

It is not that Peterson has solved all the problems of track surface, but intense focus on surface brought about by the synthetic era has changed the way racing looks at track surfaces, and almost certainly has made racing and training safer. Science like Peterson’s is being applied more rigorously; a sudden spike in injuries these days quickly triggers inspection and introspection.

“The one good thing that has come out of this,” Arthur said, “is that we’re getting more good data on racing surfaces than ever before.”

Peterson will not even attempt to answer the question of whether synthetics are inherently safer for training than dirt. He does not have data on which to base a conclusion; no data, no answer.

“I can’t tell you about safety, but I can tell you about consistency, and I don’t think you’ll find anyone who doesn’t think a consistent surface is a good thing,” Peterson said. “Even the best dirt tracks take a lot of work to make sure the entire track is consistent. Synthetic tracks – and I have to qualify this – synthetic tracks are easier when they’re properly maintained.”

When they’re properly maintained. The devil, alas, is always in the details.

What next?

Graham Motion, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Dubai World Cup with Animal Kingdom, loves taking his horses to the Tapeta surface at the Fair Hill training center in Maryland. Motion remains a synthetics supporter. He thinks there is a place for them in North American racing and can’t understand how their detractors can gloss over the well-documented safety record.

“The biggest problem I have is that people overlook the statistics about fatalities,” Motion said. “I think it’s such a shame. The synthetic track we have at Fair Hill, that we’ve maintained in the way we’ve been told to maintain it, we’ve never had a problem. The problems that so many other people had with them come down to maintenance or upkeep, or that they hadn’t been put in right in the beginning. I’m stunned by all the negativity toward these tracks.”

Martin Collins, the Polytrack founder, steadfastly maintains that most Polytrack problems are attributable to the humans who have worked with the surfaces, not the surfaces themselves.

“There might have been some things that came up that might not have been foreseen, but it’s like a motor car: If you don’t maintain it, it will fall apart,” Collins said. “We have 20 racetracks around the world – 20 racetracks – and they don’t have problems because they listen to us.”

In fact, the remaining synthetic tracks have settled into a more comfortable rhythm than existed during their early years. It has taken time and money, trial and a lot of error, but racecourses have made steady progress in maintenance and performance.

Steve Cook, the vice president of racing at Woodbine, said he sees Polytrack “having a long future here.” Even with Keeneland returning to dirt, Arlington has no intention of following suit, according to general manager Petrillo. The Tapeta tracks at Golden Gate and Presque Isle – like the surface at Fair Hill – have never experienced the level of problems other synthetic surfaces presented. Neither venue has any plans for change.

Over time, horsemen – and, to some extent, breeders – have figured out what constitutes a synthetic runner. There’s a synthetic subset of the racing population that did not exist 10 years ago, and one could imagine that growing under favorable circumstances. Angry shouting from horseplayers has quieted, too. Synthetic races are not as utterly inscrutable as some once thought. Favorites won at a robust 37 percent clip during the 2013 spring meeting at Keeneland, and favored horses at Presque Isle, who won only 27 percent of the races in 2007, won at a 36 percent rate there last year.

It seems so clear now: If the whole synthetics enterprise had been permitted to develop at a slower pace, giving maintenance practices, trainers, and bettors time to adjust, the landscape might look different.

“I think the worst things that happened with synthetic tracks is that they were forced on everybody, and they didn’t have a chance to be adapted,” Motion said.

“I think there’s no question about that,” Peterson said. “The rapidity of development was not a good thing. We might have been able to sustain this better. Caution would have been better on this.”
Instead, the focus here has returned to its historical default – dirt. That is not necessarily a bad thing, and if the ruling family of Dubai replaces Tapeta with dirt at Meydan, it gives the American model an invigorated international foothold. But racing beyond North American borders is gaining momentum through internationalization, and the global surface currencies mainly are turf and synthetic, not dirt.

“The fact is that in 25 years’ time, the Far East and the Middle East probably are going to be the major core of racing,” said the English trainer John Gosden, who trained in California and won the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Pro-Ride with Raven’s Pass. “You begin to ask yourself if the dirt horse being bred in America might have less and less international opportunities.”

Horsemen grinding through their day-to-day training regimens cannot be expected to ponder the international future of the American Thoroughbred. Most will embrace dirt’s comeback, and surface-safety protocols, amplified by the synthetics era, should, with continued diligence, make dirt tracks better than ever. But the recent developments at Del Mar and Keeneland have ended a period of relative stasis. For now, the synthetic revolution is over.

“In 2005 and 2006, the world was different,” said Thomason of Keeneland. “There was a vision for where we saw the industry and surfaces going at that time. ... It almost got there, but it didn’t make it.”