Synthetic synthesis

A quick review of recent events in the world of synthetic surfaces:

Following Santa Anita’s announcement that it would replace its current Cushion synthetic surface with Pro-Ride, Ray Paulick provided on his website two sets of data about the Santa Anita surface. The first, from Ed Halpern, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, is accompanied by a letter in which Halpern states,

“Since the introduction of synthetic surfaces in California, barn areas are now
filled, trainers have moved to California from across the country, field size
has grown dramatically, injuries are down, and horses are racing more often.
Those facts speak loudly and are irrefutable.” (quoted on Paulick’s
site)

The survey results may well offer compelling evidence for trainer preference for synthetics, but it’s a little hard to tell, based on the information presented. According to Paulick, 92 trainers responded, and they were able to rate their preference in one of five ways: strongly favor dirt, favor dirt, neutral, favor synthetics, strongly favor synthetics. We are told that “Of all those responding who strongly favored dirt or strongly favored synthetics, 70% strongly favored synthetics.”

What we are not told is the sample size: how many trainers indicated that they strongly favored dirt or strongly favored synthetics? If it’s 80 of the 92 who responded, we have some significant information; if only 20 indicated a strong preference for one or the other, we don’t.

The results of a similar survey, released a month later, do provide that specific information, telling us that 28 of 53 trainers “strongly favor synthetic” at Golden Gate, which has a Tapeta surface.

The Paulick Report goes on to release detailed statistics about breakdowns at the four synthetic California tracks, before and after the conversion, all of which indicate that synthetic tracks reduced breakdowns. What we don’t know is the source of this information; how it was compiled; and whether it includes training injuries.

In other California news, the Daily Racing Form reported that Hollywood Park would close for three days to do maintenance on its Cushion track following concern about an increase in injuries. Track president Jack Liebau described the maintenance necessary for the Cushion track as “probably more intense” than that for a dirt track, and trainer Jeff Mullins indicated that “freakish kinds of injuries” had occurred, without providing any details.

Earlier this month, the New York State Task Force on Retired Racehorses announced that it would hold a full day forum to discuss the issues associated with synthetic tracks. Moderated panels of jockeys, trainers, track officials, veterinarians, and “industry analysts and researchers” will provide insight and answer questions from Task Force members. I am hopeful that those present will be able to provide more than anecdotal reflections on their experiences with synthetic tracks, and that comprehensively collected data will provide a foundation for the discussion. I’m glad to see that it looks like a number of participants have no financial interest in one track surface or another, and hopeful that the panel will provide data useful in assessing the effects of synthetics on both horses and humans.

Amid concern from horseplayers and traditionalists that New York tracks were going synthetic, the Glens Falls Post-Star published a story in which Charles Hayward, president and CEO of NYRA, indicated several reasons that he was in no rush to do away with dirt in New York. One reason is financial; NYRA simply can’t afford the multi-million dollar investment that a new track would require. But money isn’t the only obstacle:

But Hayward said even if they were rolling in dough, the issue needs a
significant amount of study before moving forward. There isn’t enough
empirical evidence to show whether or not the surface actually helps the horse,
Hayward said. He also said he’s interested in studying the potential
carcinogenic affects of the surface — made of carpet fibers and melted sand and
wax.

“I’m hoping the industry, with our participation, will study this issue
more thoroughly,” Hayward said.

Hayward’s position reflects mine exactly (aside from not having millions of dollars to invest). There’s so little actual evidence, supported by real data, about the advantages and disadvantages of synthetic surfaces, and I’m glad that more opportunities to see that data are becoming available. It’s important, though, that the methodology be based in the best practices of scientific research; so much seems based on individual perceptions and impressions, and given what appears to be the paucity of information available on breakdowns BEFORE synthetic surfaces, I wonder whether we’ll ever be able to compare definitively breakdown rates pre- and post-synthetic installation.

I am encouraged, though, by what seems to be industry interest in gathering information to make an educated decision, and I’m looking forward to hearing what the panels have to say in two weeks. While at this point my preference is still dirt, if we were to find out incontrovertibly that synthetic surfaces reduce breakdowns, cause no other types of injuries, and are safe for humans and horses to breathe on a regular basis, I’ll be all for them.

3 thoughts on “Synthetic synthesis

  1. While it’s pretty clear that the synthetic tracks do result in a decline in catastrophic, fatal, breakdowns, I’ve heard a lot of anecdotal reports of other non-fatal injuries to horses that train every day on the synthetic surfaces. Soft-tissue and hind-end problems seem to come up a lot. And, to balance those trainers moving to California for the surface, there are certainly some — though perhaps not 92 — who have moved a good portion of their horses to New York or other dirt venues. As you say, we need a lot more evidence, and studies that focus on all injuries, not just the catastrophic breakdowns in the afternoon.

  2. Steve–information that I read last fall in The Blood-Horse indicated that the catastrophic injury picture was a little murky; at Turfway for sure, and I think Woodbine and Keeneland as well, fatal breakdowns dropped in the first year on the synthetics, then went back up in subsequent meets. I’d have to check the details, but I’m pretty sure that the results weren’t clear-cut.Maybe it was a maintenance issue, but I haven’t read any updates on the most recent meets.

  3. Great post, Teresa.Don’t forget the impact of weather and/or temperature on artificial surfaces, too…and that New York has some pretty extreme weather. Woodbine and Presque Isle are hopefully keeping very careful records. I was amazed to learn at how the track at Del Mar changes as the morning progresses.There is an air of inevitability about these types of discussions that seems misplaced. There is an awful lot at stake for it to be a foregone conclusion that New York will switch to artificial once the money is there.It’s three months or so to the Breeders Cup at Santa Anita on the new track. What will fans think? If I was NYRA, I’d pay a lot of attention that weekend.

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