Synthetic vs. Dirt

I titled this post deliberately, because I feel like the conversation about track surfaces has devolved into little more than a dichotomy: Us vs. Them. Synthetic vs. Dirt. Equine Lovers vs. Heartless Gamblers. It’s been a big couple of months in the world of track surfaces; here are some of the highlights:

Ahmed Zayat throws a tantrum at Delmar and Bob Baffert travels east with a string of horses, fleeing the slowness of the Polytrack for the swiftness of the Saratoga dirt.

Presque Isle Downs opens with a Tapeta track, the first racetrack in the country to run on this surface, developed by trainer Michael Dickinson and installed on one of the training tracks at Fair Hill. A horse fatally breaks down on opening night.

Belmont’s fall meet opens with a fatality on the main track on opening day.

Through the month of September, three horses break down and are euthanized at Presque Isle; three horses break down and are euthanized at Belmont. A fourth horse is a casualty of one of the Belmont accidents and also has to be put down.

Presque Isle announces a study of the respiratory effects on horses of racing and training on a synthetic surface.

Two horses fatally break down on Cushion tracks in California, both in training, one at Hollywood Park, one at Santa Anita.

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In August ’06 I attended a panel at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga, and it was there that I first heard reservations about synthetic tracks. A vet, a trainer, and a jockey all expressed hope about the possibility that synthetic tracks would reduce equine and human injury; each also expressed concern about the lack of information regarding respiratory effects and reservations about long-term exposure to the surfaces until significant studies were complete. It’s gratifying that the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission has taken a step to address these concerns, but it’s only a small step, and long-term studies need to be completed in order to determine the effects of synthetics on injury and health. I’d also like to see the respiratory health of humans added to the list of consequences being studied. One racing season isn’t enough to say definitively that synthetics reduce injury (see Turfway’s decline, then increase, in equine injuries on their Polytrack), and I would think that the folks at Presque Isle would want another meet to see how their track holds up, as the fatal injury rates for the month of September at Presque Isle’s synthetic track and Belmont’s dirt track are equivalent. I have not compared non-fatal injury statistics and would welcome input from those who have.

As Steve Crist wrote recently, in response to a comment on his blog, “…the industry is in fact belatedly launching a comprehensive breakdown-reporting system so that we can all have more than anecdotal numbers about surface safety. In the meantime, I don’t know of any reason to consider the dirt surfaces in New York unsafe. This summer, there reportedly were two racing fatalities on dirt at Saratoga and four on Polytrack at Del Mar. Yet Polytrack proponents and salesmen continue to insist that dirt is dangerous, Polytrack is a miracle, and that anyone who disagrees with them is a callous gambler opposed to animal welfare.”

Zealotry on either side of this argument serves nobody well, and I’ve heard more than one trainer say that he’d like to train on synthetic and race on dirt; this makes sense to me, given that horses spend a lot more time training than racing. Tanya Gunther wrote a thoughtful commentary on the subject in The Blood-Horse, and here’s hoping that other such thoughtful, measured voices come to the conversation.

I have posted elsewhere that equine injuries are complex occurrences, likely born of a number of factors. I’d hate to see that complexity get lost in the “synthetics are the solution” debate, and in the intolerance of varying opinions on this subject. Here’s hoping that the industry funds more studies like Presque Isle’s, so that informed steps can be taken towards reducing injuries and helping to eliminate one of the uglier sides of the sport that we love.

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The Chalk writes on this topic today, too.

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