Some Real Dirt - By Evan Hammonds

Originally published in the August 28, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

By Evan Hammonds 

By Evan HammondsEarlier this summer, during the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, the racing community discovered that not enough data have been collected yet to determine whether synthetic tracks are safer than dirt tracks. When the California Horse Racing Board mandated synthetic surfaces at the state’s major venues in a knee-jerk reaction four years ago, there was far less information—only one year of racing at northern Kentucky’s Turfway Park.

At the time of the mandate, synthetic tracks were “considered” safer than traditional dirt tracks. Are they “considered” safer now? Despite impassioned comments from both sides of the issue, the only safe answer is we still don’t know. But one thing we do know is the synthetic surface installed at Santa Anita has been a mess from the start and has seen more facelifts than Joan Rivers.

The fact Santa Anita announced it is going to replace the synthetic material with a traditional dirt surface shouldn’t mark the beginning of the end of the synthetic surface era in North American racing, but hopefully only the end of an embarrassing string of canceled cards and bad publicity at the “Great Race Place.”

It was May 2007 when Santa Anita selected Cushion Track to install a synthetic surface at the Arcadia, Calif., track. After a rousing round of thumbs up when it was unveiled in 2007, the critics started to surface by Santa Anita’s traditional winter-spring meet. Drainage issues—something that clearly shouldn’t happen with the porous nature of a synthetic surface—caused multiple cancellations of racing. Australia-based Pro-Ride came to the rescue, worked with the surface, and made it usable by the Oak Tree stand later that year so the non-profit association could host the first of two Breeders’ Cup Championships.

What we also have learned from the Polytrack surface at Del Mar and the Cushion Track oval at Hollywood Park is that synthetic surfaces in Southern California are a work in progress. If anything, temperature variables, track maintenance, and the sheer volume of horses training and racing over the surfaces are factors that perhaps didn’t receive enough scrutiny in original projections.

It’s easy to look in the rearview mirror: Had the CHRB taken a little more time instead of rushing to have these surfaces installed, and, perhaps, track management had done more due diligence to vet out their suppliers, and suppliers had studied Southern California’s climate better, and had the installation—specifically at Santa Anita—been done right in the first place, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Regardless of which side of the synthetic surface debate you’re on doesn’t really matter—everybody is for safer racing for both horse and human. What’s positive about the decision to return to a dirt surface at Santa Anita is that the track should get a better surface than what’s there now. And that’s not a condemnation of all artificial surfaces. It is really a plea for Santa Anita to embrace this chance to install a quality surface.

Perhaps the safest comment we can make is that this may be Santa Anita’s last chance to get it right.

Keeneland’s Crunch

Many things in racing come and go, from track surfaces to track management to this season’s top runners. Constancy can be fleeting in the Thoroughbred business.

That’s why news that Keeneland, bastion of stability, is in a financial crunch comes as something of a surprise. The Lexington racetrack and sales company is cutting people and purses and possibly its charitable contributions in response, officials say, to declining auction revenues.

The belt-tightening comes on the eve of Keeneland’s 75th anniversary celebration. Founded by a few tough men and built with the help of mules during the Great Depression, the track operated on a shoestring, with Hal Price Headley actually hand-counting racing receipts in the early days. Keeneland today is a beloved local institution and the world’s largest Thoroughbred auction company, whose sales are the barometer of Thoroughbred industry health—yet, until recently, Keeneland itself seemed impervious to any downturn. Indeed, the place has never looked better, from the Rice Road barns to the banks of young trees to the renovated Keene Place mansion.

Let’s hope that appearances aren’t deceiving and that Keeneland, with prudent guidance, will grow even better with age. Keeneland at the century mark would be something to celebrate.

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