In the aftermath of Eight Belles’s breakdown in the Derby, we have no shortage of suggestions about where to put our energy and attention into making racing safer. Commenters on yesterday’s post offered their opinions; elsewhere, ideas—both informed and uninformed—are flooding blogs and newspapers.
One suggestion–or in some cases, demand–that repeatedly arises is that tracks immediately replace dirt with synthetic surfaces. I’ve written regularly on synthetics since last fall, and a look at any of my posts on the topic will reveal my skepticism about the value of synthetics in reducing equine injury.
When synthetic tracks first began to be discussed and installed, I frankly didn’t have much of an opinion. The argument about the tradition of racing on dirt means nothing to me; if traditions are bad or harmful, why would anyone stick with them? A $2 bettor, I am not swayed by the handicapping angle, though I can’t make much sense of the stuff. And I’ve never really cared how fast horses run. If synthetic surfaces made racing safer for horses, I figured they were a great idea.
Then I attended a panel discussion at the National Museum of Racing in August of 2006 at which a racing journalist, a trainer, a jockey, and a vet spoke, and all of them expressed significant reservations about synthetics, specifically the lack of research regarding the respiratory effects on humans and horses of long-tem exposure to the ingredients (wax, rubber, carpet fiber et al.) in synthetic tracks. I was, and continue to be, astonished that this topic is not discussed at greater length. I have frequently been told, “It won’t be a problem, because there’s no kickback.” Yeah, well, I was at the Lane’s End at Turfway, and if there’s no kickback, what was the cloud of brown stuff coming up behind the horses?
Since then, I’ve followed the debate about synthetics with significant interest, and I hope that you will pardon the self-referential nature of the rest of this post; I went back through the various times I’ve written on this topic, and I’m going to highlight some of the news on synthetics since last fall.
In September, I summarized some then-recent developments in the world of synthetic surfaces. Presque Isle opened with a Tapeta surface, and a horse fatally broke down on opening night. Belmont, with its dirt track, opened its fall meet with a main-track fatality on opening day.
Through the month of September, three horses broke down and were euthanized at Presque Isle; three horses broke down and were euthanized at Belmont. A fourth horse was a casualty of one of the Belmont accidents and also had to be put down. Presque Isle announced a study of the respiratory effects of racing and training on a synthetic surface. So far, I haven’t seen reports on the results of that study.
Across the country, two horses fatally broke down on Cushion tracks in California, both in training, one at Hollywood Park, one at Santa Anita.
December was kind of a big month on this topic. I wrote about the Symposium on Racing and Gaming, as reported in The Blood-Horse. Benefits of synthetics cited were: larger fields, which led to higher handle; fewer cancelled racing days due to weather; ability to use the track for training year-round; decreased maintenance costs. (Note: this was before the Santa Anita debacle.) According to The Blood-Horse’s article (which is no longer available online), there were twenty-four catastrophic injuries at Turfway in the final year of the natural surface. During the first year with Polytrack, the number of catastrophic injuries dropped to three; during the second year with Polytrack, the number of catastrophic injuries rose to fourteen. I have no statistics for the recently completed meet.
Later in December, I wrote a series of posts about The Blood-Horse edition devoted to synthetic surfaces, which is still available online; I continue to give kudos to The Blood-Horse for making this available online for free. Many of the people interviewed (who included jockeys, breeders, vets, owners, trainers) felt that synthetic surfaces were over-hyped and did not reduce injuries as promised. One of the statistics given was that the fall Keeneland meet had the same number of fatal breakdowns as the 2005 fall meet and the 2006 spring meet combined, and they were both run on dirt. The Polytrack meets of fall ’06 and spring ’07 had zero fatal breakdowns during racing. I have no information on breakdowns in fall ’07 and spring ’08, though Teuflesberg notably broke down (not fatally) last fall.
Also in December, Woodbine ended its fall meet, having experienced significant challenges with its synthetic surface due to weather, and three horses in one morning broke down and had to be euthanized while training at Hollywood Park.
In this post, I more thoroughly summarized The Blood-Horse articles: two noteworthy points were that at Woodbine, all fatal breakdowns are studied at the University of Guelph, and that several horsemen were quoted as saying that they believed that dirt tracks could be made significantly safer if the foundations were re-constructed. There was also a sense that not all dirt tracks are created equal, and that some are significantly more dangerous than others.
In January, I wrote about a call from the president of Hollywood Park for a summer forum on synthetics, laying out a series of questions that need to be answered.
In March, the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, in conjunction with the Jockey Club, held a summit on welfare and safety, at which various proposals were submitted to reduce equine safety. One bit of notable news from this summit was that there were “there were 244 fatalities from 123,890 starters on dirt, for a ratio of 1.96 per 1,000 starts. For the tracks with synthetic surfaces, the ratio of 58 fatalities from 29,744 starts was 1.95 per 1,000 starts ratio” (Blood-Horse), indicating that synthetic tracks were not safer than dirt tracks.
Interestingly, a month later, the same group published revised findings from Dr. Mary Scollay: “’I would like to report that after a thorough review, the fatality rates I reported at the summit last month should have been 1.47 fatalities per 1,000 starts for synthetic surfaces and 2.03 fatalities per 1,000 starts for dirt tracks.'” (Thoroughbred Times).
The Thoroughbred Times report on the revision went on to say,
A review of the injury rates presented at the Summit established that the
initial catastrophic injury reports actually covered longer periods of time
with more races and total starts.
Scollay said the rates presented at the Summit included just 34 racetracks and represent less than a year of study.
“Therefore, it is important to remember that these fatality rates are just
a snapshot in time from a less than statistically significant number of tracks
and cannot be considered scientifically conclusive at this point,” Scollay said. (Thoroughbred Times)
Other significant synthetic news that I didn’t write about of course includes the many lost racing days at Santa Anita when the track’s drainage system failed to work properly.
So there you have it.
But what, exactly, do we have? Several years into the synthetic experiment, what do we know? We know that a lot of people like synthetic tracks, and we know that a lot of people don’t like them. We know that in some cases, they seem to reduce catastrophic breakdowns, but we don’t know how consistently. We know that synthetic tracks are expensive to install, and that in several cases (Woodbine, Turfway, Santa Anita), they are expensive to maintain, haven’t performed as advertised, and cost racing days. We know that horses continue to die on them, and according to Dr. Scollay, that there is no significant statistical evidence to support that they reduce catastrophic injury overall. We have no idea what happens when people and horses breathe this stuff in over an extended period of time, though anecdotal evidence suggests that horses scope clean after a race over a synthetic surface.
If, after long-term studies, it is conclusively determined that synthetic surfaces are safe for jockeys and horses, and that they reduce the number of catastrophic breakdowns and other injuries, then I will be the first one at the NYRA offices requesting that they be installed at my beloved NY tracks (though according to Joe Drape, NYRA’s not waiting for my seal of approval). But until then, I would hope that those railing on the message boards and in the press would react less emotionally and more reasonably. Watching a horse die makes us nearly desperate to find a solution, any solution, to make racing safer for horses. With synthetic surfaces at more than half a dozen tracks in North American, in a variety of climates, we are in an excellent position to do research, analyze data, and make informed decisions. There’s no point in rushing to install unproven surfaces that may well damage horses in ways about which we know little at this point, or in spending precious racing resources on a solution that doesn’t provide the outcome that horses deserve, when there is so very much work to be done to make our sport safer.