Panel #3: Trainers
Participants: Todd Pletcher, Nick Zito, Mark Casse, Dale Romans
Each participant began by talking about his experience training on synthetic surfaces. Casse, who is based at Woodbine, obviously had the most, and he is an unequivocal fan of synthetics, particularly because he can keep his horses in training without regard to the weather. He compared it to the disaster of the first week here, when it rained nearly every day; he said that he missed more training here in the last week than he did in two years at Woodbine. He has a training center in Florida and would install a synthetic surface there if he could afford it.
Dale Romans is based in Kentucky and trains at both Churchill and Keeneland; he said several times that having options for training is optimum for him. Horses who like synthetics can train at Keeneland; horses who like dirt can train at Churchill. He also emphasized the safety of the Churchill track and said that he saw no need to consider converting it. Like Zito, he spoke frequently of tradition and history.
Todd Pletcher has raced/trained at Arlington and Hollywood for two years, and at Keeneland. He said that “it’s too early to know for sure what we’re dealing with.” He noted that two years ago, he brought seventeen “good” horses to Hollywood and had a great winter with minimal problems, running at Santa Anita on dirt and training on Hollywood Park’s Cushion. This year wasn’t as good, and he saw an increase in soft tissue and bone injuries. In his two summers at Arlington, he had the least number of injuries and the highest number of repeat starters. He also observed that his horses suffer few injuries at Saratoga, describing the training as “terrific.” Saying that a lot of tracks are “cyclical,” he noted that three years ago he had a lot of problems here. Most years, he does well at Belmont, but this year he was “killed” with injuries there. His main point: we need to study synthetics over years before we can draw any real conclusions.
Zito’s remarks came as no surprise to anyone. He spoke of his love for the Keeneland dirt track (“my beloved Keeneland”), and couldn’t resist pointing out that a few years ago he beat Pletcher by one for the training title. He prefers dirt to synthetics and said that training on Poly at Keeneland, his horses experienced soft tissue injuries. “I’m not as lucky as Mark on synthetics, or he’s not as lucky as I am on dirt.”
Zito also called for greater supervision of dirt tracks and better maintenance, saying that he wishes that in the research on synthetics there was also research into how to make dirt tracks safer than they are. In a story that I’ve heard him tell twice and read about in an interview with him, he said that Oaklawn Park raced from January 17 to April 11 and experienced one-third fewer breakdowns than year before: five breakdowns from 4600 starts. Oaklawn had apparently re-done its dirt course and established an on-track lab to work on the surface; because the track is on a spring, no chemicals are allowed in its treatment. According to Zito, the total cost was $100,000, and the track missed three days of training. “In the Big Apple, with our machines, unions, politics—what we should we be able to do?”
“Saratoga’s an absolute treasure, and Oklahoma one of the best tracks ever. I know Todd will agree with me—now I’m putting words in your mouth. [big laughs]. My goal is to preserve that.”
Dale Romans pointed out that Polytrack was initially installed where “the worst tracks were to begin with—Keeneland and Turfway had terrible dirt tracks. Anything’s an improvement.” He said that investing in dirt might have improved those tracks as well. He also observed that he’s seen a run of tibia injuries on Poly, saying that catastrophic injuries may come down on it, but there are still major issues. He doesn’t train his horses who are “weaker behind” on synthetics, and suggested research into how “good” dirt tracks differ from those with a lot of injuries.
Pletcher suggested that the tendency to seal tracks takes a toll on horses in the morning, and said that his biggest concern is that tracks are over-sealed to protect them for racing; he senses that that’s what caused the problems at Belmont recently. One of the reasons that the Oklahoma is so good is that there’s no concern about sealing/protecting it for racing.
Pletcher also said that the solution in New York is to put a synthetic track inside the current turf course. Doing so would protect handle and “might be the best venue to experiment with racing/training on it year-round.” The other trainers on the panel supported this idea, as it widens trainers’ options and doesn’t eliminate dirt.
Moderator Mike Kane of the National Racing Museum noted that Zito started only two horses at Keeneland this spring; Zito reiterated his love for Keeneland but said, almost visibly shrugging, that he has dirt horses, not grass or synthetic horses.
None of the trainers noted any respiratory problems, almost dismissing the possibility as irrelevant. As Dale Romans put it, eliciting laughs,” “At Turfway Park, we kept hearing that they had a lung infection, but nobody could figure out who ‘they’ was.”
When asked how horses came back after racing on synthetics, Zito said that his two came back fine (yes, his two Keeneland starters became a running joke…), though he later said that one came back with a hind end injury. He also said that he’s eager to see more data to see whether injuries are reduced by synthetics, observing that injuries in athletes are inevitable: “Posada’s out for the year, and he doesn’t run on Poly.”
Romans broadened the conversation, saying that “something else has changed.” Equine injury is not about tracks; it’s a deeper, bigger problem, and he said that the industry needs to do research to find out why horses are making fewer starts. Pletcher noted that while horses might remain healthier training on synthetics, if they don’t like racing on it, you’re not going to get more starts from them. Casse said that the consistency of training results in more starts and fewer scratches.
The question about soft tissue injuries elicited predictably varying responses; Casse hasn’t seen any increase, while Romans said that racing on synthetics hasn’t improved most types of injuries.
A question about next steps generated perhaps the most sparkling discussion of the day. Casse said that he can’t see how New York can’t address this issue; gamblers might not like to bet on synthetics, but they don’t like to bet on four-horse fields, either. “[Synthetics are] the future, and the quicker you get on board, the better.” Romans protested strongly against making any changes at Churchill: “There’s a lot of history in that dirt.” He spoke of Seattle Slew and Secretariat, implying that the historical import of the Triple Crown would “go out the window” if the track were converted.
Zito seconded Romans, saying that running a Triple Crown on anything other than dirt would have implications for racing and breeding, and that it would fundamentally change the nature of the three historic races.
Casse challenged them: “Nobody appreciates history more than I; I’ve been coming here since I was ten, but our industry is in big trouble. What’s more important…history or the continuation of our great sport?” Romans responded, “The history of the sport is important to the future of the sport,” reiterating that horse safety has to do with a lot more than track surfaces. Good-naturedly one-upping Casse, Romans reported that he’d been coming to Saratoga since he was nine, to which Casse responded, “But I’m older!”
As anyone who saw The First Saturday in May might expect, Romans at times stole the show; when asked whether synthetics changed the way they purchase horses, Romans said, “Todd buys the most,” picking up the mike and planting it firmly in front of Pletcher. The serious point that came out of this was that the Ocala Training Center has a synthetic track, and that two-year-olds who train well there aren’t always able to replicate their form on dirt. “Lots of horses go well over synthetics; dirt exposes weaker horses.” Pletcher pointed out that one of his fillies from Ocala ran third on opening day, and that she’s been disappointing on dirt; she’ll be pointed to Arlington or Keeneland. Casse noted that the filly who won that race came from the same sale.
In a little North American cultural controversy, Casse was asked how the Canadian public reacted to running the Queen’s Plate, a historic race, on Polytrack, to which he responded that there wasn’t any outcry at all. Romans and Zito both said that the Queen’s Plate just doesn’t compare to the Triple Crown. Zito went on to talk about the treasure that is American racing, that it’s something to be proud of, up there with baseball, hockey, football, and basketball, which I bring up only because Casse did not, as I might have expected, take the opportunity to point out that hockey is in fact Canadian, but oh, well.
The idea of a third surface at Belmont elicited a good deal of support, while three of the four trainers strongly came out for continuing to race on dirt. While Casse said that he enjoys racing on dirt and doesn’t hesitate to do so, he was more staunchly in favor of synthetics than the other three. Romans, who seems to work equally on dirt and synthetics, was far more impassioned about the importance of dirt than I’d expected, and repeatedly made the point that the conversation about horse safety has to go far beyond the discussion of track surfaces.
The third and final report will focus on the jockeys and the researchers.