Synthetic review

In the aftermath of the first ever Breeders’ Cup on a synthetic surface, we’ve heard about equal calls and predictions from both sides: “Get used to it; in ten years, every track in North America will be synthetic.” “Don’t worry, folks; within five years, synthetic tracks will go the way of Astroturf.”

Fans and bettors have expressed disgust, admiration, ambivalence, frustration, satisfaction. No shortage of opinions on the benefits of synthetic surfaces has been offered, including the one that the lack of breakdowns at this year’s Breeders’ Cup is reason enough, on its own, to continue racing on synthetics.

Yeah, well, there were no breakdowns at Belmont on Saturday, either.

I’ve been following the developments in the synthetic story fairly closely over the last year or so, and writing about them fairly regularly; you can find all of those posts here.

In late July, I attended the day-long panel discussions on synthetic surfaces held at Saratoga.

Based on that panel and other reading, and focusing solely on equine welfare, it is impossible to say with any certainty that synthetic surfaces reduce catastrophic breakdowns. Some notable insights from the panel:

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

Dr. Mick Peterson suggests establishing 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 agrees that there’s no reason for good dirt tracks to change, and said that all the performance testing has to happen in the same way, and that anecdotal information is useless.

Dr. Arthur, from California, observed that synthetic tracks appear to reduce racing fatalities; he also noted that the relationship between track surface and injury is equivocal and inconsistent; different studies show different things. One statistic that he cited was that 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.

Trainer Nick Zito, renowned anti-synthetic zealot, related 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.

Kentucky-based trainer Dale Romans races regularly at Keeneland and Turfway, two tracks with artificial surfaces, and he 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.” Echoing Zito, he said that investing in dirt might have improved those tracks as well. Based at Woodbine, trainer Mark Casse expressed views that unequivocally supported the move from dirt to synthetics.

You can read more here from the trainers, vets, and researchers.

In this post from May, I surveyed/summarized much of the major track surface news over the previous six months, including discussion of the synthetic issue of The Blood-Horse, still fortunately available for free online.

Not much new since the end of July, though there are a few tidbits worth considering.

In thirty-six racing days at Saratoga, there was one fatal breakdown, and that was on the turf. No horses died during racing on the dirt. There were eight racing and training fatalities at Del Mar last summer. This is the second year that fewer deaths occurred over Saratoga’s dirt than over Del Mar’s Poly.

In early September, the L.A. Times shockingly reported that in the first two weeks of the Del Mar meet, trainers presented track executives with information that 69 horses had already suffered season- or career-ending injuries. Hat tip to John Pricci and Equidaily, where I first saw this article.

I’ve seen written on a variety of websites that five horses broke down at the Oak Tree meet this fall, in the first month on Pro-Ride, but I can’t confirm that anywhere. If anyone has a link to an article on that, please send it along.

There are myriad factors to consider when discussing synthetic surfaces—handicapping, economics, maintenance—and in some of these areas, the information available is more unequivocal than others, pointing to the benefits of artificial surfaces. Speaking strictly about safety, though, we have no clear answers about whether synthetic surfaces will help to protect horses any more than well-maintained dirt does. Perhaps the best thing about the tracks where these new surfaces are installed is that they got rid of their notoriously unsafe surfaces; many of the tracks that have noted initial breakdown reductions had fatality rates above the national average, so it would make sense that a new track of any kind would lead to fewer catastrophic breakdowns.

This Breeders’ Cup raises more questions than it answers about the role of synthetic surfaces in North American racing—just look at the discussions occurring throughout the racing world in its aftermath. Taking the information we have as a whole, though, what is clear is that we have no answers yet about whether synthetic surfaces are in fact safer for horses. Dr. Mary Scollay’s injury reporting project should provide some of those answers, but for now, let’s not be too hasty to draw any conclusions about horse safety based on last weekend.

6 thoughts on “Synthetic review

  1. Notice the people who talk about this weekend and how “safe” synthetics are fail to mention the 5 fatal breakdowns at Santa Anita this fall. I guess those deaths don’t count, because the world was not watching.

  2. Outstanding piece.It is welcome and most refreshing to see a sober and cogent presentation on the subject.When reactionary decisions take precedence over proactive and deliberate change, it will do nothing to solve the problem.

  3. Great piece.It highlights exactly why we need more real data, not just some anecdotes here and there (and I speak as someone who wasn’t at all annoyed by how the Breeders’ Cup went this year, much to my surprise).

  4. Thanks for the comments, folks.SS: Where did you see that statistic? I’ve seen it posted in many places, but as I wrote in the post, I can’t find confirmation of it. Anon: trying to get the Belmont info. Will post if I do.

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