02/20/2008 12:00AM

Synthetic surfaces stir lively debate


ARCADIA, Calif. - Opinions on the merits of synthetic tracks were sharply divided among trainers who spoke at a one-day conference on the surfaces at Santa Anita on Wednesday, with some reporting an increase in horse injuries and others defended the surfaces as safer.

The daylong meeting, presented by the California Horse Racing Board, was held before a standing-room-only audience of 150 people and included a wide range of comments from nine panels - jockeys, synthetic track manufacturers and experts, trainers, veterinarians, track maintenance experts, racing secretaries, horse owners, handicappers, and track operators.

The integrity of synthetic tracks has become a concern in recent weeks as Santa Anita lost 11 days of racing in January and early February because its Cushion Track surface failed to drain following several rainstorms. There are four synthetic tracks in place in California - at Del Mar, Golden Gate Fields, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita.

A panel of 10 trainers debated the synthetic track issue for an hour, with opinions fairly split between supporters and detractors.

Trainers Bob Baffert, Julio Canani, Ed Moger Jr., and John Shirreffs criticized the surfaces, citing a high injury rate, and inconsistencies between morning training and afternoon racing.

"We're in a crisis or we wouldn't be having this meeting," Baffert said.

Shirreffs said that he has experienced numerous hind-end injuries in his stable since the first synthetic track was installed in California at Hollywood Park in September 2006.

"I disagree with synthetic tracks," Shirreffs said. "It's hard to go to the barn and be optimistic."

Several trainers, including Ron Ellis, David Hofmans, Richard Mandella, and Doug O'Neill, spoke in support of the surfaces.

"I can unequivocally say that horses stay a lot sounder," Ellis said.

"I think our horses are better off overall on a synthetic track," Hofmans said. "I have a barn with too many horses. I'm not turning horses out like I used to."

Moger, the president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, said his barns in Northern California and Southern California have a worrisome rate of injuries.

"I cannot say that synthetics are safer," he said. "I can't say it's worse and I can't say it's a better track. I'm trying to keep an open mind. As far as being safe for sure, I can't say that."

During the veterinarians' panel, Jeff Blea, a private vet in Southern California, provided evidence that the number of shin X-rays conducted by his five-person practice had dropped since synthetic tracks were installed, but that injuries related to the pelvis and feet had increased.

Dr. Greg Ferraro of the University of California-Davis called for a five-year study on synthetic racetracks to gain information on how the tracks change over the short and long term.

"You want consistency day to day," Ferraro said. "These synthetic surfaces are engineered surfaces and are the beginning of a new science to construct racetracks. This isn't the end, it's the beginning."

Michael Dickinson, who designed the Tapeta Footings surface installed at Golden Gate Fields, said horse fatalities were greatly lower after the maintenance of that track was altered in early January - from 8.9 fatalities per 2,000 starts from early November to Jan. 6, to one in the 1,290 starts from Jan. 7 to Feb. 3.

He said that in Great Britain, the figure is one fatality per 2,000 starts on synthetic tracks.

"That's got to be our goal, if we can get our act together," he said.

David Flores and Garrett Gomez spoke on a panel of riders, agreeing that riding on the surfaces was easier on their bodies, and that the surfaces had minimal kickback, but saying that they sometimes feel inconsistent.

"Through the last week or so, it's changed from day to day," Gomez said. "It's still a safe track, and horses seem to get over it okay."