Synthetics panel: the final report

Panel #4: Jockeys

Participants: Richard Migliore, John Velazquez, Javier Castellano

Richard Migliore, who’s been riding in California for the last few years, dominated much of this conversation because he’s had more experience than the other two jockeys.

Migliore spoke about the initial adjustments at Del Mar, given the way it was playing in the afternoon last year: “You need to know your horse; you don’t head to a spot unless you know you can get there and stay there.” The slowness of the track in the afternoon made it hard to know the horse, and Migliore said that not being able to rely on instincts led to mistakes during races. As so many others did during the day, he said that synthetic surfaces need work, practice, and research. He said that the California mandate left no time to do research and due diligence, resulting in the Santa Anita debacle and Del Mar’s problems. While he applauds the intent, “there’s a long way to go before we say, ‘This is the answer.’” Like Dale Romans on the trainer panel, he said that there is a “confluence of issues” that need to be addressed in the industry, noting that “if tradition were the most important thing, we’d still be paying taxes to the King.”

Velazquez noted that because horses go so easily over Polytrack, it can be hard to tell whether horses are going right or wrong; Migliore seconded this, saying that when horses go down, they go down hard and fast.

On an earlier panel, the trainer one, I think, someone observed that the horses can’t tell us what they think; Velazquez said that it’s the responsibility of the jockeys to talk for the horses and advocate for their safety. He went on to say that too often, the jockeys lack a say; when they express concern about track safety, they are vilified: “Everyone’s mad at us.” Later in the program, he called for more communication among various stakeholders, saying with some frustration, “They think we’re pinheads, and our opinions don’t matter.”

Similarly to the trainers, both Castellano and Velazquez like the idea of having three surfaces to race on. Velazquez said that when he first rode at Keeneland over Polytrack, he was incredibly tired at the end of the day; he had to “carry horses more,” and adjust and get used to the physical demands of riding the surface. Castellano said that he noticed less kickback, which made riding younger horses easier because they weren’t panicking about stuff coming back in their faces.

Migliore said that a bad synthetic surface is worse than a bad dirt surface, because superintendents have no experience with the former. He also said that he had an allergic reaction to Pro-Ride, and that he’s heard jockeys complain of eye irritation.

Towards the end of the panel there was a bizarre interruption. The format was pretty clear: the moderator asked questions of panelists, and then individual Task Force members could ask questions. There was no audience participation…at least until someone walked into the pavilion in the middle of the jockey panel and immediately called out a question—no hand raising, no acknowledgment—about health effects of synthetics, expressing a concern about “black lung.” The jockeys addressed his question (mostly by saying that the issue had already been addressed), and the interloper went on to talk about the reduction in breeding value with the introduction of synthetics. The moderator moved along, and the man got up, obviously disgruntled, shaking his head and walking out. Bizarre.

Panel #5: Researchers

Participants: Dr. Sue Stover, Dr. Mick Peterson, Dr. Mark Hurtig

You’ll note that this section is a little abbreviated compared to the others: I didn’t capture all of the specific scientific information, and as it was the end of day, I was getting a little numb and having a hard time focusing. I captured, I believe, the main points of each presenter.

Again due to location problems, I missed the beginning of Dr. Stover’s presentation, but I was able to, I think, glean her main points. Her work is in the causes of equine injury, and she made the point that catastrophic injuries are caused by repetitive loading over time; rarely does a catastrophic breakdown occur from one incident. Horses more intently trained (higher speed, greater distance) will be at greater risk of injury, and if injuries aren’t given a chance to heal, the risk for catastrophic breakdown goes up.

As Dr. Arthur noted earlier, Dr. Stover observed that the results of studies on synthetic surfaces are inconsistent; many things factor into equine injury, and surfaces have been made the scapegoat.

She spoke at length about one study, of the dirt, synthetic, and turf surfaces at Keeneland. She cautioned that the results of this study should not be extrapolated to other tracks because of the variance from one track to another; the results of her work showed that synthetics indicate a lower risk of injury because of smaller loads between the hoof and the ground, and lower acceleration and deceleration.

She listed opportunities to prevent injuries:

  • Detect and rehabilitate minor injuries
  • Manage horses’ exercise program
  • Pay attention to surfaces and their management

There was a fourth item, but I am embarrassed to say that my laptop was out of power by that point and I can’t read the notes I took by hand. At the end of her presentation, Dr. Stover stressed the need to keep in mind all factors regarding equine injury, not just track surfaces.

Dr. Peterson opened by emphasizing the need to talk about both dirt and synthetic surfaces, and his work is about how to improve surfaces and their consistency regardless of material. Currently, no standards exist for racing surfaces, as they do for playing fields of other sports. He said plainly, as did several others throughout the day, that synthetics will not solve the problems of horse injury.

Advocating a track support program, Dr. Peterson suggests a central lab to compare surfaces at tracks, linking data about surfaces to information about breakdowns in order to investigate the relationship between the two. The two factors that he focuses on are temperature in synthetics and moisture in dirt, saying that these are the factors with the most impact on track conditions. He supported Dale Romans’s point that there’s no reason for good dirt tracks to change, and speaking as the scientist he is, said that all the performance testing has to happen in the same way, and that anecdotal information is useless.

Dr. Mark Hurtig replayed the “track surface is only a part of the issue” tape and spoke about his work with the Death Registry in Toronto. A government initiative, the Registry has existed for two years, seeing any horse that dies within sixty days of racing. So far, it has done work on 113 Thoroughbreds.

Dr. Hurtig spoke at length about equine physiology and described how injuries happen and can lead to fatal breakdowns. His conclusions:

  • Synthetic surfaces won’t change the unusual aspects of equine physiology.
  • Reports on surfaces need to be quantitative and objective (he stressed “objective”).
  • Other factors are more important in attrition of racehorses than track surfaces.
  • The sport needs better monitoring of horses and track surfaces.

And thus ended eight hours of discussion. I learned more than I knew before about equine physiology; I became even more convinced about the importance of science in this endeavor; and I was impressed by the research that’s being done into equine injury and track surfaces.

Overall, though, we are in largely the same place that we were before: evidence that synthetics prevent injury is encouraging; dirt tracks can be safe; we need a lot more information before we go any further.

5 thoughts on “Synthetics panel: the final report

  1. Excellent reporting. Thanks for giving a great summary. My takeaway – there is no easy answer. All aspects of racing, starting with breeding and training, need further study.Thanks Teresa!

  2. I was NOT disgruntled!I was drunk.Thanks for the reporting…laptop ran out of power after eight hours, tsk, tsk.From what little I know, and there is nothing more dangerous than someone with a little knowledge, I would guess that the major culprit is the lack of soundness and eagerness to race.Too many racing dates force too many cards that need to be filled. Horses are rushed to run by impatient owners and not given time to recover from any repetitive stress injuries. Two year olds are trained and raced too soon without proper foundation.Cracking work. Thanks again.

  3. Great work again!I’d agree with Winston’s earlier point that it seems we should be able to compare UK data, but no one seems to have done that (at least not in any study that’s widely available).Seems as good a place to start as any…

  4. Theresa: thanks so much for doing all the work of reporting this panel. Great summaries, and lots to think about.

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