Report on synthetics forum, part I

I first began to pay significant attention to synthetic surfaces two years ago in Saratoga, when I attended a panel at the National Museum of Racing at which several participants expressed concern about the possible respiratory effects of prolonged exposure to artificial racing surfaces. Before that, when I heard about synthetics, I thought that anything that would be better for the horses was a great idea.

Since then, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t in the world of synthetics, and a lot of people have gotten into the conversation about how and where to adopt them. One of the points I’ve made repeatedly in this space is that we have virtually no objective data about their effects, and absolutely none over the long term.

Thus, when I heard that the New York State Task Force on Retired Racehorses was scheduling an all-day forum on synthetics, I cleared my day so that I could spend eight hours (!!) listening to various groups talk about their experiences. For me to re-create each of the panels would require more than thirty pages and likely put all of you to sleep (I did start dozing late in the afternoon yesterday), so what follows are the main points that each group made, along with a few choice comments that should not go unacknowledged. Warning: it’s still pretty long. Railbird attended as well and has posted a pithier, thematic report this morning.

Panel #1: Management/track officials

Participants: Charlie Hayward of NYRA; Bob Elliston of Turfway Park; Irwin Dreidger of Woodbine, Sally Goswell of Fair Hill training center

Turfway: Over the three years that Polytrack has been at Turfway, cancellations have been roughly cut in half; the dates that have been cancelled have had to do with road/weather conditions, not the condition of the track.

Turfway’s breakdown rate has declined 60%. In the last year on dirt, 24 horses broke down fatally. In year one on Poly, three horses broke down; year two, fourteen; year three, thirteen. It was noted that the dramatic drop in breakdowns that first year was probably a false/unrealistic indicator of how synthetic surfaces can reduce breakdowns, and that as a result, too many tracks jumped on the synthetic bandwagon.

Turfway’s all-source handle has increased since Poly has been installed, mostly because of fewer cancellations.

Woodbine: Polytrack was installed at Woodbine in the summer of 06, receiving rave reviews from horsemen and jockeys at the beginning. It drained well and continues to, and there are no changes in training during excessive rain, so horses/trainers can remain on schedule. There are fewer off-turf scratches.

Dreidger noted, as did other participants, that the surface needed work because of initial problems when the wax binder separated in cold weather. When the track was “re-waxed” in 2007, the problems were eliminated, despite the huge temperature variants in Toronto. Dreidger also said that the track requires more maintenance that anyone was told, particularly in the cold, though there’s little to no maintenance when it rains.

Woodbine has experienced, according to Dreidger, a 50% drop in catastrophic injuries since the installation of Polytrack. Horses are still being injured, but the injuries are different. Dreidger’s opinion is that Poly plays fair and is safer for horses. He conveyed that for him, the conversation is over: Poly is better than dirt, period.

Fair Hill training center: Fair Hill replaced its wood chip track with Tapeta two years ago; when asked why Fair Hill chose Tapeta, Goswell noted the proximity of Michael Dickinson and their comfort with him. Dickinson’s “hands on” approached was lauded at several points, especially in contrast with Cushion, who caught a lot of flack for its reactions to the disaster at Santa Anita.

Goswell noted that the Tapeta track is not “no maintenance,” but that it’s lower maintenance than dirt and a different kind of maintenance. The track is harrowed once a day and graded monthly, and stays uniform in the rain and drains well. Cold didn’t seem to affect Tapeta the way it affected Poly, though when it’s really hot, the surface material can warm up and change consistency. When that happens, the track isn’t harrowed as deep.

Because there are so few catastrophic injuries at Fair Hill, no significant increase or decrease was noted. Overall, said Goswell, “it’s been great.”

NYRA: Obviously unable to discuss his experience with synthetic tracks, Hayward stressed that there are currently no consistent metrics for measuring heat/drainage (a topic discussed by one of the researchers on the last panel), and that whatever decision NYRA makes will be based on research. Hayward also noted that in 2007, Saratoga ran 36 days; Keeneland ran 36 days, and Del Mar ran 42, and that Saratoga had fewer breakdowns than either of those tracks with artificial surfaces. “Good maintenance of a good dirt track can yield good results.” The goal, he said, is one breakdown per thousand starts, and Saratoga is generally in the 1.4/1000 range.

Hayward also observed that bettors seem to have revolted against synthetics, and that while gambler shouldn’t dictate decisions about track safety, their interests, as well as those of owners and breeders, need to be considered.

When asked by the moderator if he’d have liked to have had a synthetic surface here last week, Hayward answered, “I’d have liked to have had less rain,” eliciting big laughs.

When the question of establishing benchmarks for track safety was raised, Hayward said that he’d like the Task Force to take a look at NYRA breakdowns over the last five years on both dirt and turf to see what, if any, consistent conclusions can be drawn. He was the first to raise the issue that would come up frequently later, that breakdowns are driven by a variety of factors, including the surface.

Elliston of Turfway said that, despite Turfway’s success with Poly, he’s not convinced that there needs to be any mandatory push towards synthetics. Instead, he suggested that tracks with poor safety records be held accountable and that science, not just anecdotes, has to play a part in decision-making. He also said that attention needs to be paid to dirt/turf tracks as well as synthetic ones.

When asked about the possibility of installing a synthetic course inside the turf course at Belmont, Hayward said that it’s something that could be discussed once the franchise is approved, and suggested that if synthetics are determined to be the “right surface,” he’d be open to installing them at any New York track.

More than one participant noted the difficulty of keeping accurate statistics on equine injury; horses ship in and out, and injuries flare up long after race day.

Panel #2: Vets

Participants: Dr. Rick Arthur and Dr. Mark Cheney

In response to the commenter who asked about what vets know about synthetics, I hope that Dr. Arthur’s work below helps to answer your question. The vets were there to discuss the injuries that they were seeing since the change to synthetics.

This is one of the panels to which I was most looking forward, and it’s the one that I mostly missed. I needed an outlet for my laptop and found one, but couldn’t hear well from my spot or see Dr. Arthur’s slides; I continued to move around, with the result that I missed a good deal of this presentations. A few bits that I did catch:

  • The relationship between track surface and injury is equivocal and inconsistent; different studies show different things.
  • The way horses are made/trained/exercised are related to fatality.
  • All synthetic surfaces are similar in their make-up. According to Dr. Arthur, Polytrack, Tapeta, and Pro-Ride are all good products, while he characterized the number of errors in Cushion as “astounding.”
  • The Polytrack at Del Mar has led to an increase in field size and the number of works, as horses need to be fit on the surface in order to race well on it.
  • In the last season on dirt at Del Mar, there were fourteen fatalities; there were six fatalities last year on Poly, two during racing.
  • There were also fatality declines at Golden Gate, Hollywood, and Oak Tree at Santa Anita, through July 13th.
  • There was little difference in workout injuries on the two surfaces.
  • There is no clear correlation at this point between synthetics and hind end injuries. There is a slight increase, but the sample size is small.
  • Since the installation of synthetic surfaces, the number of arthroscopic surgeries and radiographs has declined dramatically; the number of ultrasounds also decreased, but not significantly.

Dr. Arthur summarized his views on synthetics this way:

  • They are expensive.
  • They are an immature technology.
  • They are more difficult to maintain than expected, and track superintendents lack experience with them.
  • The long-term health issues are unknown.
  • There is a synthetic track-specific injury profile.
  • They appear to reduce racing fatalities.

Over the last year, racehorse fatalities in California dropped from 3.09/1000 (well above the national average) to 1.62/1000, a drop of thirty-five horses. Dr. Arthur deliberately avoided making any cost-benefit analysis by attempting to determine the value of those thirty-five horses.

Dr. Mark Cheney of Kentucky said that he hadn’t planned a big talk and that he’d spent two hours last night thinking about what he’d say. In contrast to Arthur’s visually-accompanied professional talk, Cheney was informal and spoke from notes, but no clear theme emerged, and I had an extraordinarily hard time hearing him, so I unfortunately can’t share his insights with you.

In the afternoon, trainers, jockeys, and researchers spoke, and I’ll put up that information in a little while.

2 thoughts on “Report on synthetics forum, part I

  1. Good reporting on an important subject. Thanks for your good work on all these posts.I did get one good laugh regarding Dr. Mark Cheney in the vet panel. He usually has a translator or uses subtitles for his speaking engagements. I’m not sure what language is native to the good Doc, but it’s one most people have a difficult time understanding.

  2. I’m glad that it wasn’t just me! I wasn’t seated in a great place to hear him, and it seemed like he had good things to say, but they all went right by me…

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