01/11/2008 1:00AM

Synthetic deserves an incomplete

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NEW YORK - The drainage problem with Santa Anita's Cushion Track, which caused racing to be canceled last weekend and will force the track to be torn up and reinstalled at some point, have reopened the debate over synthetic surfaces in American racing. Yet much of the debate has centered on the wrong point.

The question is not whether artificial surfaces can withstand rainfall. With the single exception of Santa Anita's version of Cushion Track, which was uniquely reformulated from the standard composition because of concerns over heat in late summer and early fall, the one thing these surfaces have done well is to hold up amid deluges. The different Cushion Track surface at Hollywood Park and the Tapeta surface at Golden Gate Fields both withstood last week's powerful California storms. While Polytracks in Kentucky, Canada, and at Del Mar have been swamped with other problems, handling rain has not been one of them.

The issue isn't whether synthetic surfaces are a good idea because of what happens when it rains. The bigger question is whether the regulatory body that mandated their use in California, and the handful of tracks that made the decision on their own, acted too swiftly in installing them based on emotional factors and premature claims of greater safety.

Two summers ago, when the California Horse Racing Board ordered that all tracks in the state running meetings of 28 days or more had to switch to synthetic surfaces, emotions were running high over Barbaro's breakdown in the Preakness. His injury had absolutely nothing to do with the composition of the dirt track at Pimlico, but created a sense of urgency that tracks had to do something in the name of safety. The debate over these unproven surfaces was unfairly framed that if you liked horses, you had to be in favor of synthetics.

So the CHRB, claiming unanimous support for the idea, mandated that tracks switch by the end of 2007, a tight timetable and one that did not allow for sufficient study of the various alternatives in the marketplace, the potential problems of using these surfaces in extreme weather conditions, or for any comprehensive analysis on breakdown rates at tracks already using them.

There still isn't enough data or analysis two years later, but the early results are ambiguous at best, clouded by a lack of reliable information on morning training injuries, which are far more prevalent than afternoon racing injuries. Proponents of synthetic surfaces say they are undeniably safer, but critics cite data showing increased injuries last year over Polytrack at Arlington, Turfway, and Woodbine. Del Mar claimed fewer breakdowns over its new Polytrack, but they still happened, and at a higher rate than on dirt at Saratoga.

It is also unclear, even in cases where injury rates may have been reduced, whether the same thing couldn't have been accomplished by fixing longstanding problems with the dirt tracks rather than switching to synthetics. Some California horsemen believe that the problem with their tracks wasn't the dirt surfaces but the neglected bases beneath them.

Instead of exploring these issues and testing these surfaces thoroughly, the CHRB took even synthetic supporters by surprise in mandating the quick changeover, and there have been serious problems at two of the three Southern California tracks that installed them. Santa Anita is in crisis, and the racing at Del Mar last summer was severely compromised by a surface that was radically different from morning to afternoon, leading to a bizarre style of racing (also seen at Keeneland) where previous form was often irrelevant, front-runners were doomed, and major events were run in very slow time.

However Santa Anita literally digs itself out of its current problem - a return to dirt, a switch to another brand of synthetic surface, or a reconstituted Cushion Track - it is unlikely that synthetic surfaces are going to be coming to any more tracks in the near future. The revolution is on hold. Magna Entertainment, forced to install them in California, is not even considering them for Gulfstream, Laurel, or any of its other tracks. New York is considering them only for training surfaces, where they could be studied without compromising or disrupting racing.

Santa Anita's woes don't mean that synthetic surfaces are necessarily a bad idea, or that they may not be the way to go once they are better understood and refined. It is clear, however, that they are an experiment in need of further evaluation, and far from ready to replace dirt as the primary surface for American racing.