Track surfaces and breakdowns

It’s been a while since we’ve taken a spin through the world of synthetics, but with all the news in the last couple of months, it seemed time for an update. This is not an exhaustive overview, but a sample of some of the recent news.

In January, Jeff Lowe in Thoroughbred Times reported on an unusual spate of five fatal breakdowns at Fair Grounds between the 17th and the 21st.

On February 20th, Pete Denk in the same publication summarized the fatal breakdown statistics at Turfway: Five breakdowns between November 26 and December 31, 2008; four in January; none through the publication date in February. Last year,

Earlier this week, Bill Finley wrote at ESPN.com (thanks, Equidaily) that a survey conducted by Del Mar and Equibase suggests that horses racing on synthetic surfaces fail to finish races with less frequency than those who race on dirt.

Back to Turfway: Tuesday, Ron Mitchell in the Blood-Horse reported that Denk spoke too soon: On March 10, Kentucky state veterinarian reported that five catastrophic injuries occurred at Turfway between February 13th and February 21st.

And March has certainly come in like a lion here in New York: between March 4th and March 8th, at least four horses broke down and had to be euthanized, three during racing and one, according to Dave Grening in the Daily Racing Form, during training.

And in the middle of all of this, Churchill Downs announced a series of safety initiatives, including regular testing of its racing surface, enlisting the services of Dr. Mick Peterson of the University of Maine. I’d been wondering when someone in racing was going to hook up with this guy.

Peterson presented at the synthetic panel at Saratoga last summer; he is a wildly engaging scientist whose enthusiasm for his work is matched by his ability to take science and make it accessible to lay people. His work focuses on improving the consistency of racing surfaces of all kinds, and he noted that no standards currently exist for racing surfaces, as they do for playing fields of other sports,

Key to improving the consistency of surfaces, he said, was focusing on temperature in synthetics and moisture in dirt, the two factors with the most impact on track conditions. He suggested then a central lab (ah, central—the dirty word of racing) be established at which surfaces from various tracks could be compared, linking data about surfaces to information about breakdowns in order to investigate the relationship between the two. He said clearly that all the performance testing has to happen in the same way, and that anecdotal information is useless. In order for Peterson’s suggestion to be effective, of course, all tracks would need to commit to providing this central lab with information about their surfaces and the breakdowns that take place at their facilities.

The survey about which Finley writes takes us, finally, fortunately, beyond anecdotal information, but as he notes, “The industry needs to come up with all-encompassing statistics concerning breakdowns and catastrophic injuries for all horses on all surfaces at all tracks.” The Del Mar survey doesn’t distinguish between injury rates at Santa Anita over Cushion and Santa Anita over Pro-Ride, for example, so what do we really learn about the safety of an individual surface? We need to go beyond simple statistics about injuries on overall surfaces to accumulating data on injuries at individual tracks: Aqueduct does not equal Charles Town does not equal Lone Star does not equal Saratoga does not equal Oaklawn.

I am encouraged by both the survey Finley cites and the involvement of Dr. Peterson, whom I hope will begin to provide us with the kind of data that we need to make informed decisions about how best to keep horses safe. It’s been a long time coming, but as we know, significant changes in racing happen glacially. It’s a start, and a welcome one.

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