Artificial Promises - By Darrell Vienna

(Originally published in the January 30, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)      

In the middle of the last decade, the complaints from horsemen about injuries to their racehorses reached a crescendo. Nationally, it was epitomized by the fracture of the right hind leg of Barbaro. In California, horsemen were besieging the California Horse Racing Board with complaints of injuries to their horses on California’s dirt surfaces.

Purveyors of synthetic racing surfaces soon appeared like snake oil salesmen extolling the virtues of their remarkable products. Representatives of the surfaces eventually installed in Southern California claimed their products required “low to no” maintenance and minimal watering. More importantly, they pitched their products as being consistent, safer, and proven to reduce injuries.

Responding to the concerns of horsemen, and relying on the claims of the synthetic-surface sellers, the CHRB required major California racetracks to install “polymer synthetic type” racing surfaces by Jan. 1, 2008.

Many, if not most, horsemen were initially favorably impressed with the synthetic surfaces. When first installed, the synthetics appeared to live up to the promises. While some horses didn’t seem to handle the surfaces well, others thrived. Most seemed sounder, and injuries were occurring at an astoundingly low rate. While some horsemen and handicappers complained that the tracks differed markedly from morning training to afternoon racing, most agreed that the new surfaces seemed safer. Track officials responding to this concern about variation from morning to afternoon began “fine tuning” the synthetic mixtures in an attempt to bring consistency to the new surfaces. With each passing meet the synthetics began to lose luster. Horses began presenting new types of injuries. Hind leg lamenesses increased. Soft tissue injuries began to occur with alarming frequency.

The opinions of apologists have been widely disseminated. They would have us believe synthetic surfaces reduce the rate of catastrophic race injuries. If the underlying data regarding injuries are accurate and the analysis is proper, the best that can be said is that concomitant with the introduction of synthetics, some tracks have reported fewer injuries of a specific type. A causal connection between synthetic surfaces and a reduced rate of catastrophic injury has yet to be established.

Catastrophic breakdowns are caused by a number of factors. Any conclusion that fails to consider all variables is fatally flawed. In California, shortly after the introduction of the synthetic surfaces, pre-race veterinary scrutiny of all starters was enhanced. Any potential starter with even the hint of a pre-existing condition was not allowed to compete. Could it be that this heightened pre-race inspection has contributed to the purported reduction of injuries attributed to synthetic surfaces?

What appears indisputable is that these surfaces react to use and environmental forces. The constant pounding by horses’ hooves, mechanical maintenance, and the impact of environmental conditions modify synthetic surfaces daily. Track maintenance personnel continually encounter new problems because they are dealing with a different surface every day as the synthetic track slowly evolves and inexorably degrades in response to these mechanical and environmental forces.

Today the installation of synthetic tracks in California is best characterized as a failed experiment. None of the synthetic surfaces lived up to the marketing hype. The synthetic tracks require incredible amounts of maintenance, appear to do best in moderately wet weather, are inconsistent, and have not proved to be kinder or safer.

The return of natural surfaces appears inevitable. We see Santa Anita as the first in a new wave of tracks to abandon synthetics. Before rushing into another mistake, track management, state racing commissions, and horsemen should undertake a global study of tracks to determine what is working, why it works, how long it has worked, and how and if it can work and be recreated in each jurisdiction.

The use of synthetic surfaces is not new in American racing…in the mid 1960s Tropical Park tried synthetic turf; starting in the 1970s, Calder experimented with a Tartan-based synthetic track; and until the early 1990s Remington Park relied on Equitrack. All of these synthetic tracks were ultimately replaced with traditional surfaces. Absent significant technological advances, it appears that synthetic racing surfaces, once again, are destined to become a thing of the past.

Trainer and attorney Darrell Vienna resides in Sierra Madre, Calif.

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