The combined forces of The Blood-Horse’s writers have done a terrific job of exploring the various issues associated with synthetic track surfaces. As with most issues that can be viewed from multiple perspectives, I suspect that readers will bring their biases (no pun intended) to this issue of the magazine, and that both detractors and supporters will find evidence for their points of view.
The articles focus on the various major players in the game–owners, vets, breeders, trainers, track superintendents, and jockeys—and as one might expect, there is no consensus. Vets suggest that racing on synthetic surfaces leads to fewer catastrophic breakdowns but more hind-end injuries; however, it was noted several times that published fatality rates include only injuries that occur during racing, not during training hours, so it’s difficult to get a complete view of the effect of synthetic surfaces on breakdowns. One particularly interesting point comes from Woodbine. All fatal breakdowns—including those during training–at Woodbine are studied at the University of Guelph, and it was noted that in the thirty-one fatalities in 2006, the majority happened on the synthetic surface (Shulman 6979). However, since the installation of Polytrack at Woodbine, catastrophic breakdowns during racing have decreased (Shulman 6979).
Alan at Left At The Gate noted that several horsemen comment on the reconstruction of the tracks’ foundations as a contributing factor to increased safety; to quote from one article, “Many horsemen believe that the biggest value in installing new surfaces is the fact that racetracks had to tear up their old layouts and put in new bases and underlayers. They say that this, more than whatever surface is applied back to the top, is the most important factor in minimizing injuries” (Shulman 6979). In fact, many of the cited benefits of artificial surfaces had little to do with safety issues; most tracks with synthetic surfaces had larger average fields, which leads to higher handle, but the cause of the higher fields was largely attributed to the decrease in racing days lost because of bad weather, and to the decrease in scratches because of off-tracks (Shulman 6977).
Several jockeys said that riding on synthetics was easier on them, and a number of trainers suggested that their horses come out of racing/training better than they did when they raced on natural surfaces. As I said above: there’s no consensus, and, unsurprisingly, it seems clear that synthetic surfaces are not necessarily the best answer for all horses at all racetracks. I came away with the impression that there are a lot of ways to make surfaces safe for horses, and that some dirt tracks are just as safe as some synthetics are. Am I bringing my own bias, finding what I want to find? Perhaps. But I think that most reasonable readers would draw similar conclusions.
No matter your perspective, this is an excellent read. The reporting is detailed and comprehensive, thoughtful and balanced. There is much in this issue on which I haven’t commented: observations from breeders; comments from track superintendents on the maintenance of artificial surfaces; a look ahead to the first Breeders’ Cup that will be contested on synthetics. I can understand why much of this content isn’t on-line, but it’s a shame that it’s not reaching a larger audience; I would think that anyone interested in the future of racing and equine/human welfare would find much here that is compelling.
Shulman, Lenny. “On The Right Track?” The Blood-Horse. 133.49 (2007): 6974 – 6981.