A Dig At Dirt - By Mark Popham

The best European result, six wins at the 2009 Breeders’ Cup, means euphoria? Not necessarily so.

Santa Anita, with its Pro-Ride synthetic surface, may have evened things up between the Europeans and North Americans—five wins to the transatlantic invaders in 2008 and a record six out of 14 this year, and that was without Coolmore and Godolphin being at their most effective.

But reverting to dirt in 2010 at Churchill Downs and the likelihood of the same at Belmont Park in 2011 is a distinct turn-off.

While turf has always been no problem—except in cases of excessive heat and humidity—dirt is now the big no-no of world racing.

Even Dubai in 2010 will have switched to Tapeta over dirt at the new Meydan, yet many of the major racetracks in the United States have failed to change their traditional surface to an artificial one, which is both safer and more widely accepted worldwide.

The refusal to face up to global trends threatens to leave American racing, still uniquely also heavily dependent on medication, even more isolated than it has been previously.

Despite the Breeders’ Cup’s inability to provide free entry and hospitality to overseas contenders—unlike Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore—European raiders have flocked to the Breeders’ Cup, with 31 last year and 30 in 2009.

This is because American horses were seen as providing the best opposition, and the Breeders’ Cup therefore lived up to its title of World Championships.

But a World Championships on dirt is a non sequitur. Artificial surfaces, which have provided training for some 30 years in Europe, recently celebrated their 20th anniversary of racing in Britain and have spread to France, Ireland, and beyond.

There are no dirt surfaces in countries with quality racing outside of America and the adherents of such tracks—be they breeders, owners, trainers or racetracks—may have to suffer temporary economic upset if a change is made, but they would be much better off in the long term.

While California has changed to artificial surfaces through mandate, other jurisdictions, most notably Keeneland, have also chosen to do so.

It is time that such iconic venues as Churchill Downs and Belmont Park faced up to their responsibilities to the racing public and the sport in general and take the only possible way forward.

No matter how many diehards there are, those in charge have a duty that transcends narrow mindsets and temporary economic hardship to provide racing surfaces that will both
satisfy public opinion and give horses safer racing.

High levels of fatalities are grist to the mill of increasing vocal animal activists, and artificial surfaces are much safer in this regard.

For this reason alone they should be adopted, but the other big argument in their favor is worldwide acceptance.

Santa Anita hosted the Breeders’ Cup three years prior to 2008 on dirt—in 1986, 1993, and 2003—and the European winning tallies respectively were one, one, and three. The 2003 victories of Six Perfections, High Chaparral, and Islington were all achieved on turf.

This year two of the six wins—Man of Iron (Marathon) and Vale of York (grade I Juvenile)—came on the Pro-Ride surface, with strong contenders from Europe in virtually all the other races on the artificial surface.

The Classic (gr. I) would not have been such a good race without Rip Van Winkle and Twice Over, while the same applied to the Dirt Mile (gr. I) in which European runner Mastercraftsman was sent off as the favorite.

I fear we will see a depleted challenge from Europe in the next two years if the main surface is dirt, with the principal challenges being restricted to the turf races, which have provided the great majority of European victories at the Breeders’ Cup.

Both American and European racing will be poorer for that.

Hopefully, Breeders’ Cup officials will insist the World Championships beyond 2012 are run on an artificial surface or else the title will become meaningless.

European horses have been as good as American horses for years, if not better, but dirt is not a level playing field, whereas Pro-Ride, Polytrack, and Tapeta nearly are.

Mark Popham is the European correspondent for The Blood-Horse.


Leave a Comment:


Mark, thanks for a thoughtful view. Some American handicappers are violently opposed to synthetics, but I couldn't help noticing that none of the horses in the Breeders' Cup broke down, which was routine during the years it was run on dirt.

10 Nov 2009 5:06 PM


You have no idea what quagmire you have just stepped into! Good luck to you!

10 Nov 2009 5:21 PM

Hmm, I happen to like dirt racing, which I feel synthetic is not.  If this is your argument, why should racing simply not be solely on grass.  

I also debate whether synthetics are safer.  As a student of statistics, I know they can be slanted.  I also do not know but suspect that if all the money that was invested in artificial surfaces in the past few year in this country would have been invested in making dirt more safe, it would be just as safe (assuming it's not, which I obviously do not assume) or would have become safer than synthetics.  

I prefer dirt races.  I like to see a horse stretch his speed over dirt and hold off late comers.  Watching horses canter for 9-10 furlongs then sprint one furlong is not for me.  The blanket finishes turf and synthetic races isn't excited to me.  Instead of being excited, I found myself let down wondering just which horse was best and which horse was best because he had the clearest path in the stretch.  I've always preferred hearty front runners who refuse to let another horse pass them and have the stamina tand determination to see that resolve carry them classic distances.  I would lose interest in racing if only turf races existed and if all tracks go to synthetics I will likely lose interest in racing.  I speak this in my capacity as a fan as I rarely bet but racing needs all the fans it can get as well as better these days.

10 Nov 2009 6:16 PM

Cite your scientific evidence to prove that artificial surfaces are actually safer in US racing.  There has been no consensus on their alleged safety in any scientific studies to date, so you're stating your opinion and trying to present it as fact.

One thing Europeans like to conveniently forget is that US racing is much more speed based.  Common sense dictates that speed based racing will by nature produce more injuries than Euro style racing, regardless if they run on dirt, turf, pro-ride or marshmallows.

10 Nov 2009 6:23 PM

Synth a leveled playing field?

Horses such as Giant's Causeway, Sahkee and Johannesburg were true champions in their own right in Europe, and they ran like so on dirt.

Vale of York & Raven's Pass were not even close to the talent the first three had, and yet they posted wins.

Leveled field...YEAH RIGHT!!!!!!!

It's the best joke I've heard all day....

10 Nov 2009 6:24 PM
Luis E

This is the most bias article i have ever read.

10 Nov 2009 7:34 PM

I read your words, then I read them again. I can not state it better then Steve did, you write as if your opinion is fact. As a blog author you were unfair to your readers, more important, you were unfair and untruthful to yourself.

No facts were presented support your alleged claims, the argument you offer is therefor not valid.  Without facts, your words appear to reveal a bias, and in sum can be misread to display a deep prejudice against American Racing. I don't believe that is the case, but you leave yourself open to the charge by the way you presented your side.

I think the jury is still out as far as the safety of dirt/poly. Though whatever position is taken must be supported by facts. The pro synthetic side as presented is unsubstantiated.  

10 Nov 2009 8:09 PM
Phil Rynn

I dont know about this....the biggest problem with synthetics is that IT HAS ELIMINATED A "LEVEL-PLAYING FIELD".  1) It's become a totally unpredictable proposition to determine how a horse will perform on the surface.  And every synthetic surface is different. It's become madness.  2)  Is it any safer?...show me the evidence!  Only long-term studies will bear this out...maybe.  Del Mar last summer regressed back to the norm, in terms of breakdowns....and it may a while before we know why.  3)  The breeding industry is now in shambles - what are breeders supposed to breed too?

To make matters worse, some turf horses DO NOT LIKE synthetic; there is only a partial correlation to turf/synthetic ability.  

Something tells me that the falling yearling sales prices in the U.S. are not related to the economy alone:  if you are looking for the "big horse"....what are you willing to pay for a yearling that may be out of opportunities in a few years, because his "potential" is on a surface that's being phased out?

When the synthetics first started to be introduced, I was cautiously optimistic that it would be a good thing.  Im not so sure anymore.  

Until I see some hard evidence that the surface is safer for the horses, by a pretty big margin, I'm going to question the "synthetic movement".  I want a safer track as much as the next person, both for the horses and the jockeys, but the price being paid in the American Racing Industry for this change is real high right now, and it had better be worth it.  We are rendering 100+ years of selective breeding useless, and it's having major repercussions.  

I'm saying this as a die-hard turf racing fan/owner/small breeder, who has also raced dirt horses!  For me, a well-maintained dirt surface is still a good surface to race on.  I've run horses on dirt for 3-4 years/over 40 starts, and they are still sound in their advancing years, so I'm not buying the "Safer Synthetic" movement as the answer to U.S. racing's problems.

10 Nov 2009 8:49 PM


As a race horse owner, in my opinion there is not a safer racing surface than a well-maintained dirt track.  Synthetics appeal to a certain type of horse and big, heavy horses generally do not do so well on them.  That was why Rachel did not run.  That is why Curlin did not win.  And, thank goodness, Secretariat, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid did not have to.  Synthetics are the "great equalizer" in horse racing, similar to the three point shot in basketball, when, on a hot night, an also-ran can compete with a champion.  Zenyatta is an exception to this as she is truly a great horse.  It would have been great to see her run outside of her home base, synthetic track (more than the one race trip to Oaklawn) to really guage how she would compete with other champion caliber horses on a dirt track.

10 Nov 2009 8:52 PM
ronald friedman

You are very cavalier to dismiss 300 years of our American heritage. Dirt racing is American racing.Grass and synthetics are specialties for those not good enough for dirt.There is clearly not enough evidence to suggest it has become to unsafe to continue to race over.It is fine with me if the Europeans compete with us on grass.As for Dubai,it does nothing but take away our best horses.They either return all worn out or not at all.

10 Nov 2009 9:07 PM

I think no breakdowns for the last two Breeders' Cup counts as a plus.

The problem with horse racing in general is that it is very adverse to change. Especially when it comes to the Breeders' Cup we should not exclude Europeans from competing in some of the main track races. People seem to forget that synthetics are not identical to turf and that some horses excel on synthetics whereas they flop big on turf and dirt.

And a person who thinks s/he would lose interest in racing just because it is run like a turf race is a poor fan.

Thanks for stating some of the things I've been advocating since last year.

10 Nov 2009 9:14 PM
Barry Irwin

Name a major race anywhere in the entire world outside of North America that has ever been run on a synthetic surface.

Cat got your tongue?

Too bad the USSR was broken up, because you could have gotten a job writing propaganda.

Nice try, pal, but nobody that enjoys handicapping and watching top class racing is buying the synthetic arguments for a variety of reasons.

10 Nov 2009 9:26 PM
Jordan S

This article is pure crap. Back up your statements, particularly synthetics tracks being safer, with statistics and not opinion. Thanks.

10 Nov 2009 9:29 PM

As much as I "Love" Turf racing AND as much as I agree that ALL tracks should switch to Synthetics, I have to ask this...

"IF" the future of "Worldwide" racing is Synthetics, then...Why is Epsom and Longchamp's main surfaces still Turf ???

Why haven't they switched over to Synthetics yet ???

The article above mentions "Training" on synthetics in Europe for over 30 years.   But, yet the biggest Races in Europe still happen on Turf....NOT synthetics.

Maybe the future needs to be ALL TURF and No Dirt or Synthetics anywhere ???

10 Nov 2009 9:35 PM

Having "Worldwide" Racing held on ALL TURF and No Dirt or Synthetics would be the "ONLY" true way to level the playing field for ALL.

Then and only then could someone truley be called a "World Champion" and actually have it mean something "Worldwide" !!!

10 Nov 2009 9:39 PM

Who says the goal of US racing should be "a level playing field" on dirt for European grass horses? Who? We can't save US racing by holding a few international events. The BC turf races are there to attract the best turf horses and we love to see them trounce our turf horses. But the US and South America race on dirt, and it makes no sense to trash that tradition on a whim. Dirt isn't the problem, anyway: our dirt horses were tough as nails in the seventies. Get rid of the drugs, and eliminate the fast but fragile runners who drag the whole breed down.

10 Nov 2009 9:40 PM

The safety of the horses should be foremost, but American racing is currently a Tale of Two Cities - dirt and synthetic.

There have always been horses for courses even back before poly-track.

But I agree with Lawduck that one of the key dramas of racing has often been whether a speed horse can hold off a closer.  In the Classic I think Colonel John was the only horse fairly close early on and still getting a paycheck at the end.  

The Thoroughbred gene pool is already getting very concentrated and if synthetic becomes universal then won't that pool shrink even more?

And breeders will have to deduce more than ever which horse was the best in the race. Will a cottage industry spring up on analyzing "blocked paths" and computer simulations of what might have been?

Zenyatta clearly could not be blocked by anyone.

But will eastern voters knock her for not racing on dirt this year?

A Tale of Two Cities.

10 Nov 2009 10:23 PM

The Euro on the ESPN broadcast (forget his name) said it best.....The Euros have had the surface for many years and it is definitely one that will take time to adapt too in all areas including breedfing.  In other words, you just can't convert to the surface and expect things to run smoothly.  It will take several years, several generations of breeding, etc. and etc. until everyone gets on the same page.....the upside is that it closes the gap between conventional dirt and turf horses, no off tracks, etc.....The ownside is the long term injury effect.....Is there really one and if there is how can it be overcome.

10 Nov 2009 10:36 PM
tony cheeba

Well said Mark, as long as dirt is the primary surface, 'World Championships' is a misnomer for the American Championships.

10 Nov 2009 11:24 PM
Mine Bugs

Where is the statistical evidence that synthetics are safer? Remember all the fatalities at Del Mar in 2008. Saratoga had none during the same period of time. Try to bring hard statistical evidence next time instead of this poor excuse for an article. What you really wanted to say is you would like conditions to favor the European runners more, so they can continue to win more and more BC races each year. There, I said it for you. Next time get to the point instead of wasting people's time with all this crap about safer tracks and @#%$. I guess the next thing you will request is wider turns and sweeping undulating tracks. Why not make all US tracks as European as possible.

10 Nov 2009 11:53 PM

Barry Irwin

Next year in Dubai all the races (excluding turf) will be on synthetics including the so-called richest horse race.

11 Nov 2009 12:01 AM
Alina L.

To Justine and the author of this blog, how come you synthetics advocates never mention that the Breeders' Cup went 12 years straight without a fatal breakdown on dirt (1993 through 2005)?

Why do you never mention that there have been almost as many fatal injuries in Breeders' Cup races on TURF (4 dirt breakdowns compared to 3 turf breakdowns)?  

Why do you never mention that at least two of the UK horse breakdowns on dirt were preceded by the questionable actions of their jockey or trainer?  

In the case of Mr. Brooks, before the race his jockey told another jockey the horse was sore but he did not alert a track veterinarian and raced the horse anyway.  In the case of George Washington, he had already shown his dislike for racing on dirt but his trainer decided to run him over the sloppy Monmouth track anyway.

Please note I do not count Mr. Nickerson and Shaker Knit in the dirt fatalities total because Mr. Nickerson died of a heart attack on the track and Shaker Knit then fell over him.  The same thing would've happened on any surface.  I also don't include Exogenous because that was a paddock accident.  

And by the way, Lillie Langtrey fractured her knee in the Juvenile Fillies Turf this year.

11 Nov 2009 1:42 AM

A word of advice Mr. Popham.  Keep up with your "Churchill and Belmont must go synthetic" theme and you'll ignite World War III.  There's two important things you Brits need to know about Americans:

1)  we adore our dirt racing

2)  we're heavily armed ;)

11 Nov 2009 3:28 AM

My word, defensive much?!

There are statistics that show racing on synthetics is safer than racing on dirt:

Statistics compiled by Dr Rick Arthur, California Horse Racing Board medical director

California track stats:

On Dirt (time period not given)

Starters:  80,482

Fatalities: 249

On Synthetic:

Starters: 49,944

Fatalities: 85

No racing surface is 100% safe, but dirt can be so variable – look at the debacle that was BC @ Monmouth Park, resulting in the loss of a very talented horse.

Just because something has been done a particular way for a long time does not mean that it is the only way.

American racing has a huge public relations problem – ask any racing fan here in Britain about American racing and the first thing they will say to you is “drugs”.

Steps must be taken in order to show the general public that people in racing ARE concerned about animal welfare and not just about money.

Surfaces are not the only issue: things like ponying horses to the start should be looked at as the horses cannot warm up to the same extent as a horse that has cantered down to the start himself; training methods are vastly different in Europe with horses working in groups rather than alone and working on uphill gallops to strengthen muscle; and of course the elephant in the room – drugs.

No one is telling American racing what to do – but surely it is wise to look to the rest of the world and see if the best ideas can be cherry picked and taken back and applied.

11 Nov 2009 4:45 AM

Do you really think converting all race tracks to synthetic surfaces is the answer?  The truth is there has been more hind leg injuries on synthetic tracks than on dirt. And, it is really sad when all Australian trainers call the cushion track installed at Santa Anita a waste of space. (Cushion track is from Australia.) Look at the ratings for the Breeders Cup over the weekend. They are the LOWEST that they have ever been. That's pretty sad for races that are supposed to be the Championships.

11 Nov 2009 6:31 AM

As a trainer in America I have had the oppurtunity to train on synthetics and traditional dirt surfaces.  I can say as a FACT that MY horses have stayed sounder on well maintained dirt surfaces than they did on the synthetics.

11 Nov 2009 6:42 AM
Bob Hope

Mark, the nice thing for scribblers is the fact that anyone with a keyboard can comment on things they know nothing about.  it is apparent here that you have taken a collection of recent stat, tied them to your novice beliefs and deem them to be conclusions.  your research is akin to that which has been dedicated to the current main tracks in this country.  little or none!

When proper science enters the equation to assess our racing surfaces we will benefit greatly but none has been invited to engage.  The decisions and stats we have have employed have mainly involved veterinarians.  They know little about physics and the study of gravitational results.  These are the same folks who have us racing on bute and lasix.  We know some of those results after 30 years but we keep on employing this destructive path while attempting to blame racing surfaces. Let's talk to our friends up the road that race automobiles.  They know about physics and the limitations of gravitation and suspension systems.  Handicapping has not really reached a level of science whereby it can be applied to racing surfaces.

11 Nov 2009 7:27 AM
Andrew A.

Mark, I don't know what your game is but your opinion is one for the garbage can.

In Europe the horses with the least class and ability race on synthetic surfaces.  

In America the Turf Writers with the least class and ability tell us that we should listen to them and that they know what's best for us in the United States. Promoting Synthetic Surfaces are the best example of this.

You and your ilk may have succeeded in "punking" some Horseplayers in the U.S. but it will be a cold day in hell before you convince me!

Just Sayin Pal!

11 Nov 2009 7:34 AM

Nowhere in the author's comments or any of the posts was the mention of the use of drugs in North American Racing.

I don't think it was a coincidence that the same year steroids were banned and being tested for was the same year The Euro contigent increased in size.The jury is still out on poly being the equalizer while there is no doubt about the drug advantage we have and use in horse racing.

11 Nov 2009 7:42 AM
hb compton

All you need to do is compare the last two seasons of Saratoga's dirt against Del Mar's polytrack.

Tha statistics speak for themselves!

11 Nov 2009 8:14 AM
Rachel Alexandra Fan

I am outraged that you would make such comments.  

Can you please advise me which dirt horse was able to muster a win over your (more evenly played synthetics surface) I will wait

Still waiting.

Still waiting.

Still waiting.

Still waiting.

Still waiting.

Thats right the number is ZERO, Every horse that won was either a synthetic specialist or had trained and ran over the surface a great deal.  I am not sure who paid you to write such things but I now have to question the people at Bloodhorse for allowing such a misinformed blog to be placed on their website.  I would guess you must be from over seas or something, due to your bias towards American racing.  It is people like you that caused the B.C. to be held at Santa Anita for 2 straight years, therefore the Reason Rachel sat at home, and the B.C. lost so much money.  Keep up the pitiful work of reporting non fact but overly biased opinions that hold no real meaning.  

11 Nov 2009 8:22 AM
Patti L

Didn't Lillie Langtry suffer a slab fracture of the knee during the Breeder's Cup?

Has this been overlooked?

11 Nov 2009 9:27 AM
Ann in Lexington

"There are no dirt surfaces in countries with quality racing outside of America"

Depends on what you mean by "America". If you mean the United States and Canada, you are dead wrong. Hippodromo Argentina, where the Derby, Oaks, and Guineas races are run is 'sand', ie dirt. So is the third-best track in the country, La Plata, home of several Gruppo Uno races. Chile has two major tracks in Santiago - one with a dirt track and one with turf. And although the two best tracks in Brazil are turf (they do use their dirt courses when those are wet), the next two in importance, Taruma and Parana, are both dirt. Invasor raced on dirt in Uruguay, winning the Triple Crown.  

Revise your statement to say "the Americas" and it might be nearer truthful. Although Japan does have dirt courses where they run G1 races, the Japan Dirt Cup.

11 Nov 2009 9:52 AM

I love dirt racing. nothing like it in the world! Kentucky Derby on Synthetic.....lmao... never. Dirt will always be the test of true American champions. Sorry

11 Nov 2009 10:15 AM


I told you so!!!

11 Nov 2009 10:29 AM
John E

I'm just a race fan for many years. How long, you ask. In person I saw Native Diver win his three Hollywood Gold Cup races, so a while.

I would much rather see good horses be safer, and run in decent weather, than the alternative, like Monmouth in 2007. That had to turn race fans off. And now Churchill and Belmont. Great traditional tracks, but around the first of November you will almost assuredly have bad and/or cold weather. Nothing as much fun as watching great horses splash around in the slop. Really messing up the form, not to mention either running the turf races on a soft track or pulling races off the turf entirely.

Try thinking of building an enjoyable experience for the fans. You MIGHT even increase the fan base. Not that the purists seem to care about that, of course.

11 Nov 2009 10:37 AM
Dr. Fager

tbbjr states:

"Synthetics appeal to a certain type of horse and big, heavy horses generally do not do so well on them."

That's a laugher! It's an ignorant statement. Notice...I didn't say its a "stupid" statement. Ignorant means you know no better.

Zenyatta is 1,217 pounds and stands at 17.2 hands.

Now the question:

How is Zenyatta on the synthetics?


You want me to name some more "big/heavy" horses that glide over these systheic surfaces?

11 Nov 2009 10:39 AM
Old Lady Racing Fan

I witnessed the sad breakdown of Pine Island and Fleet Indian in the 2006 Breeders Cup at Churchill Downs.  The jockeys complained that day that the track was "cuppy".  The entire nation watched Eight Belles die on the same track during the Derby.  Why do fans stop watching TB racing?  It is too heart breaking.  I will not watch the 2010 Breeders Cup at Churchill.

This isn't about tradition, or competition or world-wide acceptance.  This is about the safety of the horse.  Two years in a row, at Santa Anita, no breakdowns during the Breeders Cup.  I mean, what else does anyone have to say!!!!  I congratulate California on their mandate of Synthetic track.  If the entire nation followed suit, TB racing might be a much more popular sport.  Wouldn't that be for everyone's benefit?

11 Nov 2009 10:41 AM

@ Stacy: Santa Anita does not have Cushion Track any more.  It was replaced with a ProRide surface.

@ Mr. Popham: isn't polemic fun!  It's amazing how quickly vitriol replaces civilized exchange.

11 Nov 2009 10:50 AM

pnewmarket - Dr. Arthur himself has said that his statistics that you cited are inconclusive and inconsistent.  Although one of his studies found a decline in race day fatalities, he also stated there has not been similar improvement in training deaths and injuries on synthetics.

In addition, his stats were compiled before a rash of race day fatalities at the synthetic tracks he studied.

Finally, other studies have shown either equal amount of fatalities on dirt v. synthetics or a slightly higher rate of fatalities on synthetics.  So please, stop cherry picking stats to suit your argument.    

11 Nov 2009 10:57 AM
Mike H.

The history of American thoroughbred racing has been founded primarily on plain old dirt.  America's racing fans hang their hats on the accomplishments of Citation, Man o War, Secretariat and many other greats whose records are substantial and accomplished mainly on american SOIL.  This "new and improved" artificial racing surface is just that-ARTIFICIAL.  In no way do I want to negate the accomplishments of Zenyatta or the other winners this past weekend, but my most memorable recollection of US racing is that Belmont victory in year 1973.  I can't help but wonder what that accomplishment would have looked like had it been run on these artificial surfaces.  With the way these new tracks play, Secretariat's 31 length victory might have been lessened to a rather unspectacular 2 or 3 length victory.  These tracks play like turf, the fields are normally more tightly bunched and they can make super dirt horses look rather ordinary.  We in the US breed for dirt, have been running on dirt for over 100 years and we revere our dirt champions of yesteryear.  If the Europeans want to come to the US to race, let them run in REAL American races!

11 Nov 2009 11:04 AM

There is no reason for us to be pressured by Europe etc. to change surfaces for the sake of money. That is exactly what it boils down to these days and really irritates the you know what out of me.  I gave up on the Breeder's Cup when it was decided to run it two years in a row in California.  There is a bias to California racing that turns me off of the sport.  Frankly I don't care if the Europeans come here or not.  Some horses can run on anything and some can't.  If a trainer or owner doesn't want to run on synthetic that is their choice and visa versa for dirt.  Why do so many have to get political and dig at those who make their own choices?  Since when did we loose the Freedom of Choice?  The news casters etc. need to stop trying to intimidate others to do their bidding unless they themselves wish to pick up the tab on the horses.  I am not going to be told where and when to race a horse.  We worry about losing fans and we are the ones who cause them to leave.  We have enough going on in DC so let us not make the Sport Of Racing follow the bad examples that come out of Washington.

11 Nov 2009 11:10 AM

Reading your opinion listed shortly under the article re: Summer Bird going in the Japan Dirt Cup, that there is no where outside of America that high quality dirt racing resides was amusing.

Also, high quality dirt racing is alive and well in all of the Americas.

Admitting the thoroughbred has a soundness problem and then inventing a surface to mask those issues perpetuates the problem.

As the years go by and more and more horses break down on fake dirt we'll just invent a new fake dirt and continue to denigrate the breed.

Improving the soundness of the horse is the goal. Not making unsound horses more able to race.

11 Nov 2009 11:12 AM

While the synthetic tracks do have a few advantages(being able to train when the rains come) I feel and this is just my opinion, that we have raced on dirt and turf for over 300 years why change.  It isnt the surface that has gotten worse, it is the breed itself.  People are breeding for the sales and speed instead of for a racehorse.  Look at the records of the horses of yesteryear.  They ran harder, more times and carried much more weight than those running today.  It may be true that we havent seen as many catastrphic injuries in the afternoon, but how about the muscle and hind end soreness that most people dont hear about?  No trainer is going to tell a state vet that their horse came back sore from a race, not if they want to run again without being put on the vets list.  While some horses do excel on the synthetics I for one would rather see the tracks go back to a well maintained dirt surface.  Like I said earlier this is just my opinion.

11 Nov 2009 12:03 PM

Excellent article. The stubborn refusal of some American racing owners, trainers, tracks, and enthusiasts to accept synthetic racing surfaces is puzzling. The safety of the horse should be paramount, but some decry synthetics as being "too slow." Would they rather have faster races or would they rather have horses compete safely? Also, synthetics are widely used elsewhere. Why must we cling to old, tired ways that aren't by any means the safest or the best way to race? Between our stubborn refusal to limit medications and the tired dirt arguments, American racing continues to spiral downward. All the horses that went into the starting gate at the Breeder's Cup the past two years returned to their barns. And now, the Breeder's Cup wants to take a giant step backward and run at Churchill Down's dirt track next year. The Europeans must wonder why we never learn. I agree - the racetrack owners and officials in this country should step up and switch to synthetics if they haven't already done so. The safety of the horses and the jockeys is the most important thing. If race fans can't enjoy watching a horse race on synthetics, then they aren't really fans at all.

11 Nov 2009 12:22 PM

This article is not worthy of the Blood Horse. I can hardly wait for next year at Churchhill. The good news is no drugs at BC. Drugs are the worst thing to happen in American racing. Synthetics have their place. There are still injuries, just not the same kind. Racing is dangerous, the horses are not as durable as they used to be. Too much speed and too much money.There is no way American racing should become the carbon of Europe.

11 Nov 2009 12:53 PM

This may be the dumbest article I've ever read. Let them stay in Europe, who cares! We're going to throw out a hundred plus years of racing because of some ridiculous unproven theory on injuries? You are correct, synthetic dirt does even things out, helping "lesser" horses have a shot. We may as well just have a lottery.

11 Nov 2009 12:59 PM

I believe as long as the Breeders Cup is held in AMerica, dirt racing must be part of the event.  We have let the Euro's have their way the last 2 years, but next year we are back to dirt.  Zenyatta dominated horses on dirt also in her only dirt race.  I believe her offspring will be adept on both surfaces.  Churchill, Pimlico and Belmont will never go to synthetic, and as such, the Triple Crown will always be on dirt.

11 Nov 2009 1:00 PM

converting all tracks to synthetic is equivalent to putting a bandaid over a severed limb.

The problem is so much more than a track. The problems start in the breeding shed and then go down hill from there. Everyone knows it...but no one wants to fix it. There is way to much money involved. That is the dark side of the industry we all love.

11 Nov 2009 1:17 PM

I would agree, we may have crowned a synthetic champion on Saturday, and maybe the greatest synthetic champion that will ever run, but thats about all that was figured out.

11 Nov 2009 1:24 PM

The thing with "dirt" on most racetracks is its composition is almost as artificial as the fake stuff.  It's a recipe that is carefully maintained and it's not found in nature either - maybe the ingrediants, but not as the components are put together. It's a little hard to find "dirt" that's sand, clay, gravel, etc. etc., in perfect layers, all perfectly even in nature.

11 Nov 2009 2:03 PM

If the Europeans, for whatever reason or reasons, perceive that synthetic surfaces are the great equalizer ultimately resulting in their greater presence at Breeders' Cup, then I am all for it.  I loved the international flavor of this past BC at Santa Anita.  It was a world event, not simply just another American event.  Also, using the Saratoga vs Del Mar Racetrack argument to claim that dirt is a safer surface than synthetic is unfair, since Del Mar has experienced excessive breakdowns on BOTH their current synthetic surface, as well as on their previous dirt surface.  Some have theorized that Del Mar's problems arise from the shape of the track.

11 Nov 2009 2:09 PM
Theresa S.

I think the most disturbing Breeders Cup fatality statistic is that ONE trainer from Great Britain trained 50% of the European horses that broke down in Breeders Cup races and his horses account for 28% of ALL Breeders' Cup fatal breakdowns.  He's also the trainer of Lillie Langtry, the most significant injury reported in this years BC.  

I'm confident that if one US trainer had those kind of stats, either our media or our racing authorities would investigate him instead of blaming another country's racing surface.

In other words, clean up your own backyard before sticking your nose in our business.    

11 Nov 2009 2:14 PM

Synthetics is obviously a "tiring" type of track. So the more you relax early, the better off you will be (closers). This mixes very well with European style racing. Personally I find it boring.

11 Nov 2009 2:16 PM

Not sure that the synthetics are the equalizing factors to the Euro's doing well. Those Euro's not put on Lasix didn't do very well, but those returning to Lasix from previous running in the U.S. or first time Lasix seems to be the better "equalizer" to a certain extent. Who here doesn't bet the L1 older horses?

11 Nov 2009 2:22 PM

Steve, I am not "cherry picking statistics" I am quoting statistics that are out in the public domain.  It is not my fault if those stats are not updates instantly.

Show me the stats that say racing on dirt is safer than synthetics.

The fact remains that there is a problem in US racing and a decision needs to be made - safety v tradition.

Hawkeye - European horses need to run at Breeders' Cup if you want to insist on calling it the World Thoroughbred Championships.  Besides, Europeans nominate plenty of foals to Breeders' Cup every year (about 1,400) so why shouldn't they head over to win some of the prize money on offer?

Breeding and training practises will adapt - they have done in the past and they will in the future.

Perhaps if American breeders focussed more on soundness and stamina instead of speed, speed, speed there wouldn't be so many problems.

If you want to read some stats on the fatality rate in the UK see here:


I think the bottom line is that American racing is badly in need of a country-wide Governing Body, similar to the BHA in the UK.

Don't get me wrong, the BHA is far from perfect, but they are the ones that set the rules, hand out the penalties etc and everyone knows where they stand.

No one is "picking on" America or American racing, just call it some friendly advice from people who  have been racing Thoroughbreds for a lot longer ;)

11 Nov 2009 2:32 PM

When one sprays through the fan opinions without base, all his opinions, even the good parts, lose credibility.

Statistics are not clear. Two years of breakdowns in Breeders Cup is not a statistic. The US is not the only quality racing in dirt; Argentina and Brazil are not inferior...please! Chile, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Peru are a step and two below, but one thing is certain: none have the high level of breakdowns as in the US. Just check all the South American horses that have run in stakes level in N.A.: almost all ran well into their age 5, 6, and above without any tragic outcome.

So, truth is -among other points already said above- that the problem is that fragility has been introduced in the breeding, its not in the racing. And if you keep changing surfaces and running conditions (shorter distances, sintetics, medication, lighter weights) to mask this, well, what will happen is that in 10 years from now, to avoid so much breakdowns, horses will have to be riden by gnomes and run their races...in the water!

11 Nov 2009 2:34 PM

Oh, and by the way, Europe did not race originally in synthetics for safety. C'mon! They resorted to it for economical reasons: their weather (a lot of rain, snow, constant humidity, droughts, high heat) and expensiveness of water.

11 Nov 2009 2:38 PM
Pam R

Horses are not breaking down more because of dirt surfaces.  It's all in the breeding.  All you have to do is look at the records of so many horses that raced in the 1800's to about the mid 1900's and you will see horses, even top caliber horses, race two to three (or even more) times what today's horses do, and on dirt surfaces.  I believe the biggest problem is that horses that break down on the track are more and more being saved through great veterinary advances and are then able to go on to the breeding shed and pass on their weak genes, whereas in the past, they would just be euthanized.  I don't have a problem with saving an animal's life if possible, but then they should not be bred, or very little, no matter how fast they may be.  It's not the dirt; horses have been running on natural dirt for thousands of years, not synthetics.

11 Nov 2009 2:41 PM

I would like to point out that after GW at Monmouth a policy was put in place that every BC starter was vet checked three times in the 48 or so hours preceding the races.

In 2008 five horses were scratched by vets. This year's figure is unknown. Deferring to the AWS as the reason for fewer problems is not accurate. It could just as easily be the policy.

As far as I know the policy will remain in place for Churchill and Belmont.

11 Nov 2009 3:10 PM

Alina L:  Go For Wand...1990 Distaff...at Belmont on the Dirt.  Enough said.

11 Nov 2009 3:30 PM

Mark, your article is enlightening and I appreciate it.

While I wasn't thrilled at seeing a Breeders' Cup at the same racing venue two years in a row, I was extremely gratified to witness the events free of serious or fatal injuries. For me this is what constitutes a successful event, and not which horses win or lose.

I'll comment in regard to safety, because I'm sure we all feel this is the most important factor. I am in favor of synthetic tracks moving forward in American racing; however, I don't feel surfaces, in and of themselves, are the only answer to addressing some of the issues here, but a combination of things: the return to more emphasis on stamina and not pushing our very young horses for speed (BC Marathon is a great addition); breeding more bone into our horses, and focusing on soundness; and restricting and prohibiting medications.  I think all of these factors, along with track surface, type, and integrity, are interdependent on each other, while, in my opinion, the most important single factor  is the horse himself, ie.:the physical and mental state of that horse. But on the global stage, and on a competitive level, I cannot disagree with your argument.

Thanks again for your thought provoking commentary.

11 Nov 2009 3:35 PM

oh boy, I was waiting for this blog to surface (if you'll forgive the lame pun). firstly, I have no idea which surface is safer to be honest, and I think the safety argument just clouds the issue. it is not the point. most europeans want synthetics in america because it gives us a much better chance to win races at the breeders cup and other races if it were extended everywhere. 4 of the 6 placed horses in the bc classic 2008/09 were turf horses. however, I can also understand americans wanting to keep with tradition.

ok, but the problem for me is that we have 2 racing worlds that can never meet. there are dirt horses that can't run on turf and vice versa. if people are ok with that, then fine. the us has 150 years of dirt racing, of dirt champions being mated with dirt mares to produce winners on dirt. a lot of them cannot go on turf or synthetics. in europe and the rest of the world to be honest (despite the dirt cup, japan races predominantly on turf), they have done the same for turf.  

if you want one world of racing, then there has to be a switch. if you are happy with two worlds, then stick with it.

and finally, who decided to switch to synthetics and for what reason? I can't help thinking that now turf horses have proved so successful on synthetics and some dirt horses have proved such a flop, there must be breeders out there thinking if we can get major synthetic winners, it opens up a whole new market for our horses, all that money from arabia, ireland, japan.

personally, I like dirt. I just wish with all that space you have over there, you would build courses that are a bit bigger than the average greyhound track.

11 Nov 2009 3:51 PM

Theresa S, I can't believe that you are try to cast aspersions on Aidan O'Brien, probably one of the straightest people in racing worldwide.

He has been desparately unlucky with his runners at Breeders' Cup, but do you actually follow his horses in Europe? The number of horses he runs world-wide the law of averages states that he will have horses that sadly suffer breakdowns.

Perhaps you should take a long hard look at the American trainers that constantly break medication rules in the US and proudly proclaim that they use steroids.

I know who I'd rather trained a horse for me.

11 Nov 2009 4:09 PM

I'd be interested to know where the idea that dirt is a natural surface for horses comes from.

Unless my education was seriously flawed I always thought that horses naturally exist on grass plains - After all I've never seen a wild horse eating dirt!

Turf is the only natural surface for a horse to run on, end of story.

It is very interesting to see that there is a significant minority of US based racing fans on this thread that acknowledge that changes need to be made somewhere along the line.

I thought the comments would be more one-sided, it's nice to see people having a healthy adult debate.

11 Nov 2009 5:40 PM
Paul A

I hope BC comes back synthetic as soon as the schedule opens up.  I refuse to bet or watch another BC on a wet fast or "Sealed" track.  Those tracks are suicide for racing.  Woodbine, Keeneland, Del Mar, Arlington, Santa Anita, Hollywood should be the only eligible BC tracks.

11 Nov 2009 5:40 PM

Here's the deal. You guys who don't like dirt run your horses on synthetics. Those of us who like dirt will run OURS on that surface.

The NTRA is a U.S. based organization the Breeders Cup, same. When they initially co-organized this it was NOT designed to favor the Euro horses over the NA horses. It's pretty odd if they start doing that exclusively. Yes the BC is the World Championships, but the World Series doesn't include Japan. If they want to start funding the BC and holding it in Europe then it should be come beat us on the surface we're used to, have horses bred to run on. Until then? Come play on our home field.

For those mentioning breakdowns on the dirt? NEVER before the break down of Eight Belles have the vets watched these horses, checked them out frequently just totally babysat them. THAT more than anything is what prevented breakdowns BC day. There were some very nice horses that broke down before the BC and some (Pioneer of the Nile) whose careers were ended on synthetics.

11 Nov 2009 6:11 PM

okay , dirt is better  from a betting  standpiont its a handicapers  tool. okay  we get it, but synts are not  the answer ! I  LOVE DIRT  RACING  AND TURF AS WELL , GOOD  TRACK MAGEMENT  AS  WELL AS BETTER DRUG LAWS  ARE NEEDEDE  TO MAKE SURE ALL ATHLEATS  ARE SAFE  AND SOUND! sorry bout  the caps.

11 Nov 2009 6:28 PM

I don't have as dog in this "dirt vs plastics" debate except when an owner uses it as an excuse to not step up to the plate in a championship race and still expect to win HoY for his horse and Owner of Year for himself.

That said however, my local track, Colonial Downs runs mostly on turf and I've learned to hate to see them run on dirt.

I'm also following more and more races on foreign soil and am finding them far more exciting than many of American events (the 'Arc for example) because I  feel I'm watching a great athlete and not a miracle of modern chemistry.

I've reached a point where I'm starting to feel that if the Americans want to stay with their drugs 'n dirt, then let the industry go down the toilet in this country.

There are just far too  many other quality options out to there that provide better action and are safer for the horses to let these people rule the game any longer.

Horse racing simply doesn't need them anymore.

11 Nov 2009 8:04 PM

It's difficult to believe that someone could write this blog entry with a straight face.  

Of course Europeans love it - now they not only have the BC turf races but also our main track races.  It doesn't take much to figure out your motivation.

When you all start running your Derby and Arc on the synths, give us a call.  

By the way, the BC was built on the backs of American breeders.  It is not a world championship, it is - or was - a great day of racing which sometimes decided American championships.  If you want a European championship, might I suggest you pay for and host your own?  

11 Nov 2009 8:16 PM
mike rullo


please go see a doctor to get your head examined!!!!

you need to report for the racing post not the blood horse.

11 Nov 2009 9:32 PM

pnewmarket - here is but one article titled "Artificial tracks provided false hopes".


It's from the LA Times, no less, one of our original cheerleaders for synthetics.

And I must ask, why do you think US tracks are any of your business?  Your racing industry is far from perfect so I suggest you focus on fixing that instead.

For example, whether you want to face up to the O'Brien/Coolmore issue or not, the fact remains that team has eye-popping death and injury stats at the Breeder's Cup, as another poster already pointed out.  So please, focus your sanctimonious safety crusade on them first.      

11 Nov 2009 11:41 PM

Suzanne, I think I'm in love with you.  Just kidding but your post echos my sentiments exactly.

12 Nov 2009 12:21 AM

Im still waiting for my original post to show up.

Statistics as well as any mathematical formulas can be arranged to give you any answer you want. Ever take a financial planning class? Same there.

I dont agree with synthetics, never will and who ever thought of having the Breeders Cup at Santa Anita two years in a row is just plain stupid. Dirt races on synthetic?

I cant wait for the Cup to return to its traditional surface for the races its supposed to be run on. Maybe Summer Bird will get the respect he deserves for coming in 4th to turf and synthetic specialists. Everyone is caught up in the Zenyatta moment to realize he and all those other dirt horses have been robbed for two years of the opportunity to shine on their respected surface, dirt.

As I said before, this article is garbage and you should just leave it in Europe buddy.

12 Nov 2009 7:54 AM

Tell the owners to all of the horses that broke down this summer out in California how safe synthetics are. I cant recall any breakdowns up in Saratoga this summer. Amazing stats you have.

12 Nov 2009 7:55 AM
joe d

all i hear is saftey from alot of you. if you are concerned about the saftey of the horse put your time in on all the meds that are given to these horses they made them 2 year old drug addicts. you dont see lasix- bute or any other meds in the euro's do you. its madness

12 Nov 2009 8:34 AM


12 Nov 2009 8:43 AM
Robert P.

Horatio Nelson, Gypsy King, the 2006 carnage at Cheltenham, the list goes on. How many more race horses have to die on European turf courses before the powers that be finally act?  The time isn't now, but rather it was ages ago, for European racing officials to set aside their intransigence and embrace the "Horse First" mantra. Extending beyond the important issue of safety, something I had thought to be self-evident but perhaps I was mistaken, is the simple fact that the world is changing and European turf racing risks becoming archaic in the eyes of the greater world racing community.  Perhaps Europes's racing officials are unaware that the world is embracing the concept of the "Universal Surface". So it's with tremendous satisfaction that I can say today that synthetic surfaces are soon to be the ONLY racing surface any horse will soon compete on globally. Well, once Europe gets its act together, that is, and once and for all realizes that adapting to contemporary realities are more important than clinging ever so desperately to centuries of tired turf racing tradition.  America has taken the first step, but now it's time for Europe to follow suit and convert all of their turf courses to all-weather, if not in the interest of modernity at least in the name of doing what's right by the horse. I'm certain that once Bel and CD see that we in America are not shouldering this burden ourselves then we'll be more than happy to completely sever our own ties to 150 years of dirt racing tradition. We'll even erase from our minds all of our great horses from the past, such as Man o' War and Secretariat, and pretend they never even existed.  Kelso, Seabisket, Dr. Fager, Ruffian.... who the hell were they?  The Triple Crown?  Never took place.  Look, whatIS of surpreme importance is that we all come to the realization (and that means you too, Europe) that synthetic surfaces completly and irrefutably eliminate all equine injury while simultaneously producing the only legitimate racing the world should recognize, or ever recognize, PERIOD! America has acted and has done her part to permanently homogenize global racing, now it's Europe's turn.  RIP OUT THOSE TURF COURSES NOW!!!!  

12 Nov 2009 9:50 AM

Of the three synthetic surfaces, which one (if any) most resembles dirt? If there is one, then use that surface exclusively. Like others here, I think that better breeding and strict drug laws are a better solution.

Another thing that has not been brought up: do souped-up dirt tracks lead to more breakdowns? It's hard for me to take new stakes/track records seriously because I don't know if it's the horse himself or the track condition that led to that new record.  

12 Nov 2009 10:31 AM

Of course no racing industry is perfect, I've stated that in my other posts!

But if we can't learn from each other and out mistakes then the industries are doomed to failure.

You are entitled to your opinion, as am I.  Don't forget the saying "There are lies, damn lies and statistics".

Enjoy your racing.

12 Nov 2009 10:49 AM

Because of all the Rachel vs Zenyetta debate the syntheic issue really has been the hot topic. I originnally thought syntheics were the answer for safer racing but I think the real isuues have been brought up(drugs & breeding). It seems like there are more 3 yo's not making it to the derby or going to the breeding farm after breaking down from the rigors of the Derby Trail. I don't remember that being the case when we had 3 Triple Crown winners in the 70's. But then the Quarter Horse trainers became the quick trip to get a classic winner and now more liberal drug rules have taken us away from how those Triple Crown winners were bred and trained. California is always going to be accused of having a home court advantage even if they stayed with dirt! If artificial surfaces increase fields and make for closer finishes then in the long run this can only help the tracks that converted to them and increase purses and generate world wide interest for their big events.  

12 Nov 2009 11:46 AM


Next week lets try a SHOULD WE SWITCH TO ARTIFICIAL TURF INSTEAD OF REAL GRASS FOR FUTURE TURF RACES (for the environment sakes of course)...Perhaps you could single handily save the bloodhorse w/such great participation...Now to only monetize it lol...GREAT ARTICLE no matter one's view...

12 Nov 2009 12:16 PM
Jack Root, D.V.M.

The jury is far from ready to make any final judgment on dirt vs synthetic. We have yet to even develop a uniform reporting method of what constitutes a breakdown when the statistics are compiled. Having two consecutive "World Championship" events on a fake track, that does not represent the norm in American racing, does indeed seem quite stupid to me. In addition not all synthetic tracks are alike.

12 Nov 2009 12:57 PM
al bundy

i wonder how many european horses ran on lasix?they use them when it is allowed.whats next run them the other way around.i could care less if horses come across the pond or not i will bet either way.but i do not bet on synthetics.i support the boycot.the guy in dubai replaced dirt to disadvantage american horses.usually you throw out everyone then narrow down to your favorite american.its all turf picks now.look at the balls on pression passion he just about made you guys look stupid.your horse got lucky.45  109  134 thats dirt times.thats real racing.the first year the kentucky derby is run on synthetic is the first year of me not being a gambler/fan.

12 Nov 2009 3:34 PM

SO the fact that on two days worth of racing no injuries occurred means that it is safer than dirt?  How about some of the recent reports that say otherwise?  It is very dangerous to make blanket statements as a journalist without using facts to back up your argument.  I suspect some of the same arguments were shared by baseball writers in the 1970s after the Astrodome and King Dome were built and over-zealous ballparks followed suit.  How did the astro-turf experiment work out?  

12 Nov 2009 3:59 PM

Geez, talk about stepping in a quagmire.

There is just not enough data to prove beyond doubt that synthetic surfaces are measurably safer than dirt.  Otherwise you probably would have included the stats on that.

The real root of the problem with injuries most likely lies within the gene pool of the modern thoroughbred who is bred to be more and more of a speed horse on a frame not designed to support a 1200 lb athlete.  

Snythetic surfaces are the great leveler?  For who?  This is America and our horses run on dirt.  I don't really care if we level the playing field for your horses.  Not when the classic American races are run on dirt.  I don't mind the BC coming to Santa Anita every few years, but to insist that our venues all move to a synthetic surface in the name of safety, unsupported by facts, is ignorant.  

12 Nov 2009 6:47 PM

While it was encouraging no breakdowns occurred last weekend, two days is hardly a relevant sample. For a study spanning severals years, check out the 4/25/09 issue of the Bloodhorse. Very solid evidence that breakdowns consistently increase when moving from turf to synthetic to dirt.

Of course horse welfare really has little to do with this debate. US dirt-dependent breeders are the tail wagging this dog (with an odd assist from lazy handicappers unwilling to raise their game).

I'm waiting for the argument that will explain why owners should pay big money for dirt horses to race in $300k G1's on the US east coast when they could buy turf/synthetic horses that can race for millions all over the world, LOL!!.

12 Nov 2009 8:08 PM

There were no breakdowns at Saratoga last year and one only on the TURF this year.

All of you talking about 'drugs' d you KNOW for a fact that all horses are DRUGGED? Have any of you read the definitive study on Lasix/Salix?  That proves out that it is much more harmful to NOT run horses on it than it is to run them ON it. The study (done in another country) suggests it's irresponsible for the Euros to not use it since the majority of TB race horses have some form of 'bleeding'.

What we need is universal drug guidelines and punishment that is carried out in all jurisdictions.

Those of you who want to continue to harp on it? Are the same ones who were harping on the surface and will be harping on whatever else. Frankly, racing does not NEED 'fans' who continually PUSH negativity.

The BC was SO safe, yet almost EVERY horse ran on Lasix.  Strange that didn't contribute to any breakdowns.

12 Nov 2009 9:11 PM

Two years in one venue is too much. Yes, the weather is nice but there are other tracks. As far as surface is concerned the stats are not in, there simply has not been enough time. Yes, other parts of the world use synthetics but to mandate there use is ridiculous. There are many differences between racing here and Europe and yes, I know you have been at longer but that does not prove you are right. It is not a step backward to race at Churchill! Why do so many people worldwide want to win the Derby? Maybe change the surfaces to suit Europeans and then winning our races will be easier?

12 Nov 2009 9:31 PM

Dave's comment that it was routine for horses to break down in Breeders' Cups held on dirt is easily the least fact-driven statement delivered as fact that I have seen in a long, long time.

Breakdowns during BCs on dirt? Yes. Routine? Ridiculous.

12 Nov 2009 10:30 PM

Food for thought.... check out the latest IFHA World rankings.

Interesting that no dirt horse shows up until the number 6 spot.

Sez quite a lot, don't ya think?

12 Nov 2009 10:44 PM

I totally agree with your article. Last two Breeders Cups ZERO deaths, ZERO injuries.  Last two breeders Cups Raced on Dirt tracks produced the death of two really fine horses, Pine Island at Churchill and George Washington at Monmouth.  I predict there will be additional deaths at Churchill next year at the BC 2010. DIRT kills race horses.  It may be easier to handicap, but it’s at too huge of a price.

13 Nov 2009 1:33 AM

I am an owner/trainer at a venue which offers only dirt racing. I am moving to California ASAP specifically for the synthetic surfaces. Here's why:

1) consistent training schedule. You're aiming for a race on a given day, you have a training schedule in mind, then it rains- hard- and you either risk injury on an off track or wait. Either way, it's not good for your horse for that race.

2) the slightly slower surface reduces concussion. The fact is that forces quadruple when speed doubles, so a slight reduction in speed means less pressure on the frame.

3) consistent surface. A dirt track gets more water in the afternoon between ten races than it does in the morning- once. That makes the track harder for the races than it is for training where a horse puts on most of its miles. Changing surfaces are dangerous.

   Regarding Euros winning, notice that the European riders did well. A surface that is not speed biased requires a jockey to know pace perfectly so he can get his horse to the wire with the most efficient expenditure of its energy.

   Regarding breeding, HAH! What a joke. I've had a lifetime of pundits telling me what horse SHOULD win the Derby based on a pedigree that will go a mile and a quarter. When the wrong horse wins they just look a little further back in that pedigree and lo and behold- there's a route horse. Every horse in the world has a pedigree to win every kind of race if you look hard enough, so don't tell me breeders will have to adapt to Polytrack. The only thing they adapt to is the market. Period.

13 Nov 2009 2:10 AM
Eddie Money

All those horses that left the gates in 2008 and 2009 and not a single breakdown!  I think we are past the use of the term "scientific evidence" and more along the lines of "common sense."  I am an East-Coaster and want to see the Breeders Cup return to my side of the country.  But I am not going to maintain a blind eye to the fact that synthetics are better for the horse (and thus racing).  The only reason you see breakdowns mounting on synthetics is that trainers are much more willing to rehab horses on it.  A horse that they wouldn't dare train/run over the dirt, they feel safer with on the synthetics.  That gets the numbnuts fired up that it is not what it is cracked up to be.  But you put hundreds of the world's best and healthiest horses over it two years in a row and that shows you the difference.

13 Nov 2009 5:16 AM

mark, I told you you were on dodgy ground with the safety argument. just clouds the real issue, which is that we euros want to win more races in the us. and maybe have true global racing. a year ago I would have argued for synthetics but after following this site and the blogs for a year now, I now understand the depth of feeling for dirt in the us. we have no right to tell the americans what surface to race on. it's not like they go around the world telling other people what to... oh wait. no, only kidding.

they like the dirt. that's all we need to know. robert p's blog summed it up best. imagine if we were asked to change in britain from grass to synthetics. and if you are talking about safety, what about national hunt racing? get rid of that too. I would also say that the americans are now very friendly and receptive to the european challenge at the bc. it is a finely balanced weekend of racing, even on dirt. and if the euros want to win more races, then  send better horses. no need to move the goalposts.

13 Nov 2009 6:00 AM

This is a very biased European article..let's not forget the Breeder's cup races are in the U.S. 95% of us racing in the U.S.--only race at U.S. tracks--and have no intention of racing in Europe--or anywhere else!! You forgot to mention that racing on this surface eliminated many of the best U.S. horses that were running at tracks in the Eastern half of the U.S. As far as safety, artificial tracks have clearly not proved to be better--I have raced very few horses on artificial tracks--and more than expected have come back sore from racing on this surface! My hope is that some of these artificial surface tracks will convert back to dirt--so U.S. based connections can again race with consistency here in the U.S. I will stop racing if the traditional tracks such as Churchill, Saratoga, Belmont--and others ever go to an artificial surface...please keep these surfaces in Europe and elsewhere--not in the U.S.

13 Nov 2009 8:18 AM

"There are no dirt surfaces in countries with quality racing outside of America."

Canada?  Argentina?  Or by "America" did you mean the entire Western Hemisphere?

13 Nov 2009 8:20 AM

To pnewmarket:

You said Turf is the natural surface for horses, however, this article is calling for dirt tracks in the US to switch to synth, not to turf.

I'd like to see Longchamps or Royal Ascot switching from grass to synth...That'll be the day...

13 Nov 2009 10:46 AM

Tvnewsbadge & Pnewmarket:

The world rankings show a huge bias against US racing...Gio Ponti won 4 G1's on turf, and finished 2nd on a different surface in the BCC, while beating Rip Van Winkle & Twice Over. Rating Rip Van Winkle that high after his flop in the BC, is nonsense, especially when considering he only won 2 G1's all year. What they are implying is that his second place races vs Sea The Stars had more importance than any of Gio Ponti's 4 G1 wins.

Fame & Glory won only one G1 in 2009, and yet he holds a tie for fourth with Zenyatta, and he is ranked above Rachel & Gio Ponti too...

That's rubbish...

13 Nov 2009 11:11 AM

Yes, by all means lets run all BC cards on synthetic tracks so we can continue to neutralize many of the best American runners and allow more second-tier Euros who take to the wax win millions while their highly-touted compatriots run up the track.  Seems fair to me, and a great way to advance the sport.  NOT!  And using Keeneland as a prime example of a voluntarily switch to an artificial surface is both stupid and misleading since they have an ownership stake in polytrack.  It will be very interesting to see how Tapeta holds up in Haydes, oops I mean Dubai, and just how long that experiment lasts.  I predict Dickinson and company will be racking up a lot of frequent flyer miles on Emirates Air.    

13 Nov 2009 1:37 PM

All you dirt track lovers, which do you love more?  An unsealed dirt track that has just taken two or three days of heavy rain and is fetlock deep in slop and mud, throwing all form out the window and turning races into jokes, or a sealed dirt track that is concrete-hard and unsafe to horse and rider?  Personally, I don't like either one.

13 Nov 2009 1:50 PM

JCN nailed the safety issue in his (her?) point #2. Speed causes horse breakdowns, just like it causes human breakdowns. Any horse running a 1 mile race is under considerably more stress if the half is run in 45 vs 48. Physiological fact, I'm sorry but you cannot spin this one. Anyone can validate this with a run around their block: compare the feeling between an even pace with a fast start, then hanging on to the finish.

Its conceivable the main driver of less catastrophic breakdowns on turf may not be the surface per se, but rather the pace scenarios correlated with the surfaces.

Synthetics in the US are basically a compromise, as our country is *slightly* bigger than the UK, so we cannot change racetracks every few days to keep the turf in raceable condition.

13 Nov 2009 2:25 PM

BMC Racing, have you heard of Lilly Langtry? She got injured during THIS year's Breeders Cup!

To me its not even about the injuries or deaths. Its just not fair to have a Classic run on synthetics. Why not just run it on the turf then because we have all seen in the last two years that the track is basically an artificial turf surface. Of course the east coast horses didnt do well, they mainly run on dirt. The TRADITIONAL surface for the classic!!!

13 Nov 2009 2:34 PM
al bundy

what are the stats of injuries and breakdowns to horses running the hurdles.seems like every race i see at least one goes down.usually more.my opinion of go for wand was the jock would not settle for place and pushed her to hard.

13 Nov 2009 4:07 PM

What about the game - picking winners? Fake dirt is a crap shoot and takes all of the fun out of horse racing. For proof, I submit the large number of huge Pick 6 carryovers in SoCal. Never used to be like that.

13 Nov 2009 4:56 PM

sophiekea, you have summed up the attitude of the US dirt leadership well: "Its not fair!!"

Its not fair our business is declining, give us slot money.

Its not fair handle is declining, let us increase takeout.

Its not fair we are becoming increasingly marginalized by the world racing community, let's just race on dirt and call it a "world" championship.

Its not fair our foal crop is only 30k a year, lets just foist mediocre year round racing on our diminishing fan base, they won't notice.

Ah yes, right out of the General Motors management playbook!

13 Nov 2009 5:04 PM
John T

Well done Mark,you have opened a

can of worms that should be opened.

Looking back on the recently concluded Breeders Cup meeting at Santa Anita I think the Marathon,Sprint and Juvenile for colts were three of the most exciting finishes I have ever seen

and all three were run om a synthetic surface.

13 Nov 2009 9:44 PM

JCN, better hurry. Wait much longer and you'll be down to two tracks with synthetics.

If no buyer is found for Santa Anita there they go. If Arnie decides to reclaim Del Mar, you can run at Golden Gate.

But, depending on the class of horse you have, my bet it's claimers if at all, then you'll be running at the Fairs or Los Al, NONE of which are synthetics.

Maybe a little more research too.

The handicappers have forced the issue and most of the trainers in Cal admit the surfaces have been 'sped up'.

IF you've ever had a Derby prospect, winner or runner it really is rare when one pops up and wins without that distance behind them, but there are always freaks.

Handle is declining? Well the economy is in the toilet, people have lost their homes in record numbers, the unemployment # is headed for an all time high. Yet the hubby is going to go spend money at the track? I don't think so.

The farms are going to manage to keep going?

My opinion? I read this stuff on here and have come to the conclusion that a lot of you aren't fans, aren't in the business at all. Those of us who are, are trying everything we can think of to stay in it and keep it going until the economy has some kind of recovery. We're no different than any other business. We're driven by disposable income and there isn't much of that on the whole right now.

13 Nov 2009 10:22 PM

Oh and JCN? The synthetics are MARKEDLY diffferent from morning to afternoon.

The number of foot, suspensory and particularly hind end injuries are MUCH higher on the synthetics.

What bush track do you run on that only has one break?

Even the 'experts' the people who install the synthetics say the hundreds of horses pounding the synthetics in morning works makes the track play a lot different.

Not sure where you're getting your info from. Talk to Baffert or even John S. Any number of trainers out there who are very unhappy with the surfaces, particularly Del Mar.

13 Nov 2009 10:29 PM

I have read this article with an open mind and come to the conclusion that it was mindless drivel. You have to look at the motivation behind it and after reading the article and all the comments it seems that there is no clear basis to switch from one surface to another. 2 years does not make a study its just euros wanting a larger slice of the american pie, people just looking to take advantage where they can get it. The main problem is breeding and drugs not the surface. How many euros raced on lasix this year,almost all of them. I agree Monmouth was a mistake due to the weather and I would like to see the Breeders Cup earlier and not in November back to October. We must have done this for the euros to because of the Arc being so close in time frame. Anytime you race in November its a crap shoot with weather except in your warm weather states so should we discount all the eastern tracks because of weather being cold?  I enjoyed this years Breeders Cup but I wonder what might have been elsewhere a 100 years of tradition is just to much to throw out on a whim.

14 Nov 2009 8:02 AM

I personally think that synthetics should be dumped and forgotten-- I hated the idea years ago when news came out about this new 'surface' that would protect horses.  I still dislike heavily to this day.

And show me the evidence that horses are safer?  I read somewhere a while back that, while catastrophic injuries such as broken legs, are down, the incidence of soft-tissue injuries at tracks that have replaced dirt with a synthetic surface are up.  So trainers are dealing with more pulled tendons, sore muscles, each that take away from a horse's training and readiness for a race.  And that's a fair trade-off for a surface that costs millions to install and is supposed to keep Thoroughbred safer???

And, as we have seen, synthetics in the afternoon run almost similiar to what a turf course is.  So why spend the money on a surface like that when a track could just remove the dirt track altogether and run on the turf completely.  From the way you are talking, then the Europeans will be even more happy--their turf stars can come over here and not even feel challenged.

Such a terrible article!!!! I am disappointed that Bloodhorse would even post this.

15 Nov 2009 12:08 PM

I wish I could get paid to write crap and make stuff up.  Synthetic safer? Why don't you compare Saratoga fatalities vs. Del Mar this year. Hint...it will prove your theory is bogus.  Go back to Europe.

15 Nov 2009 12:17 PM
mark c

There is no better racing surface than at churchill downs !!!

15 Nov 2009 8:42 PM

Try walking on synthetics yourself.  Feel the heat rise up on hot days.  How good can that be for Thoroughbreds, notorious for problem feet?  Wonder how the kickback of the artificial, odorous surface goes over in a horse's lungs.  Feel how deceptively soft the cushion is while the base is rock solid.  Imagine being a jockey falling on that surface.  So much for your safety then.

Then what becomes of all these horses with soft tissue injuries synthetics are becoming known for?  Sure, they might not die right away, but they are harder injuries to come back from.  It's harder for them to become useful horses.  Maybe they'll find a home.  But then that owner won't want them anymore and they keep trickling through owner and owner until the worst become inevitable.

15 Nov 2009 10:53 PM

One important point that nobody has addressed, to quote the article, "High levels of fatalities are grist to the mill of increasing vocal animal activists"

If these animal activists get even a "TOE" in any decisions made about any racing conditions, they will find a way (just like what they are doing to dog breeders in California)to STOP any racing at all.

They can't be humored. They can't be given ONE INCH! If they are, they will find a way to SHUT IT ALL DOWN.

16 Nov 2009 11:42 AM
J in NY

CA legislature changed their 2006 MANDATE which stated that all CA tracks need to be synthetic.  THIS is the only reason why the tracks in CA were changed.  Now, the mandate is reversed.

All of the CA tracks and trainers realize also the "less injuries, less maintenance" claim of the synthetics was false, AND, after the ownership issues get sorted out, most of the CA tracks will most likely revert back to dirt.

There were not enough tests done on the plastic surfaces to begin with to make such claims.  God only knows what the horses are breathing in and ingesting when they get pelted in the face with that stuff.  Saying that this is "better" for the horses when horses run on grass and dirt and sand in the wild is a bit inane. Besides which, every synthetic surface is different.

This blog is basically built on opinion, not fact.  To tell every major track in the nation to spend MILLIONS to change to this poly-crap is completely unrealistic. Mark, I think all of the the European tracks should change over to DIRT!  But, if you want a bunch of poly horses with mushy behinds, that's on you.  

One woman I spoke with mentioned that "Tapeta" surface in Dubai.  When that city gets its high temps and the sun beats down on the track, they will have to create a new track condition: "Melted"

16 Nov 2009 3:15 PM

America racing is dirt.  We don't want to be Europe.  Racing on dirt tells an entire story, while racing on polytrack is often a 100 yard dash with all the horses racing in a tight pack.  I love the appeal of dirt racing and I would be heart broken to see it go.  

16 Nov 2009 5:14 PM

In my perfect world, all racing would be on turf. Maybe that would be possible if, instead of a turf plus dirt (or turf plus synthetic) surface, tracks each had two turf tracks so races could switched back and forth as needed to let the turf recover. Ain't gonna happen though.

Myself, I don't like dirt racing because it turns into mud, slop, swamp, gumbo, frozen muck, etc. when the weather is bad. The track is more consistent with sythetics. At least that seems to have been the case with Polytrack at Woodbine. I don't know about other kinds.

16 Nov 2009 11:43 PM
Bob Hope

get rid of the Breeders Cup Hybrid Classic.

get rid of the astericks that will be necessary in all future sales catelogues

employ science(physics) in main track (dirt) construction, not veterinarians

17 Nov 2009 8:16 AM
Ann in Lexington

IMHO, there are several causes behind increased numbers of breakdowns. Breeding to unsound stallions is certainly one of them. But the way yearlings are raised these days is another. 'Sales prep' as opposed to running in a field with your buddies makes for less dense bones. And many trainers don't seem to understand that longer distances worked at a tempo below racing speed build muscle and bone and wind. Horses are capable of much more exercise, if properly done, than modern trainers realize. (Read Preston Burch's book.) And, I might add, dirt tracks are not as well maintained as they once were; it is a labor intensive (read expensive) job and more likely to receive budget cuts than executive pay.

17 Nov 2009 10:22 AM

Anyone else notice the slavering approval of "world opinon" and "mandate?"  This journalistic giant sounds like a barker for the Global Whining Manifesto.  He tries to make dirt racing sound as scandalous as Hottergate.  Good luck with that, but two big thumbs down, guv.


Before I'm able to destroy your argument, I'll need a translation of the following:

"... none ... broke down, which was routine during previous Breeders' Cups."

If none breaking down was routine, you've destroyed one part of the anti-dirt case.  If one/some breaking down was routine, what in God's name does that term --- "routine" --- even mean?  One per every Cup ?  One per day in the two-days-per-Cup era?  Once in a while?  However often it kinda feels like it was to you?

14 Dec 2009 5:51 PM

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