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.


Leave a Comment:

L Hayes

All I have bet, have been turf or out of state from the day of the change to polyjunk.

The handicapers and owner of the track were the biggest loosers in this entire experiment.

It will be nice to bet a dirt race with class once more.

24 Aug 2010 5:38 PM
Ken Woodall

Santa Anita;s track problems with dirt and then artificial track is an great wxample of what is wrong with racing- secrecy, myth, exageration, and and unwillingness to face facts.

24 Aug 2010 6:21 PM



24 Aug 2010 7:35 PM

The jury is still out on synthetic performance in So. Cal overall, but the change to dirt at SA will be welcomed by most.  The days lost in our rainy seasons were a fiasco.  Only by the grace of good weather did the two BC's go off without a hitch.  The Cushion Track at Hollywood has been consistent and closely resembles dirt in how horses take to it.  For the horseplayer, it is not a great mystery.  Del Mar's Polytrack on the other hand is like reading tea leaves.  DM is a great party and social atmosphere, but between the short fields and constant fluctuations in how the track plays, it is tough sledding for the horseplayer.

24 Aug 2010 7:59 PM

Nice piece, if I could add anything? How much was the way this mandate was pushed about sales and perhaps kick backs?

24 Aug 2010 10:54 PM
gary d

marvelous piece....i thought it was very exciting to hear that SA was returning to dirt...when i bring up the question of Kee going back,i am reminded that they own 1/2 the a Joe Palmer story,he says that a match race between Myrtlewood and Miss Merriment ran for no purse..."just to see who was better". thanks for a well written article

24 Aug 2010 11:03 PM


25 Aug 2010 12:16 AM

While reading a RacingPost blog regarding the recent 100-1 winner of the Group 1 5f Nunthorpe stakes, a someone questioned how a horse could come from an All-Weather track (Dundalk) and win a British Group1 race on the grass. Another blogger commented that All-Weather racing in Ireland was of “fairly high standard” compared to AW racing in the U.K. and also mentioned that 2009 BC Marathon winner, Man of Iron, also came from the same track. This stirred my interest to checkout this Dundalk. Upon doing so, what really caught my eye was their description of  Polytrack.

Here are excerpts from the About The Track heading from the Dundalk racecourse website concerning Polytrack: ‘…supplies the same characteristics as the root structure in good turf…’; ‘The Polytrack surface, which has the same characteristics as turf…’;  Although Polytrack can be manipulated to reflect Good to Soft, Good or Good to Firm ground…’ and so on.

This brings up the question; why would any American racetrack want to rip out its maintrack and just to install an artificial turf course…right next to the ‘real’ turf course?

25 Aug 2010 2:43 AM

I guess it happens on dirt, too, but it seems  we hear it more on synthetics, like JS sending out a 2 year-old maiden to "test" the track to make sure it was safe for Zenyatta to work out (glad I don't own the sacrificial 2 year-old)...SA has "tested" it's track's suitability by a lot of opening week breakdowns the last couple of years...

25 Aug 2010 7:45 AM
mike rullo

going back to dirt will save california racing!!!

you have heard disco is dead, so is synthetic.

25 Aug 2010 8:45 AM

When will people wake up and realize track surfaces are just being used as the catch all excuse for everything under the sun. If your really serious about horse safety you should be focusing on current breeding trends that produce horses with great speed at the expense of toughness required to endure a multi-season career.

25 Aug 2010 9:11 AM

It's never been about the surface, it's about the horse.

Fit, sound horses can run on broken glass.

When you have a $25k claimer dropping down to $2.5K level WITHOUT ONE PUBLISHED WORK IN 6 WEEKS, you have a disaster as in Burna Dette from the barn of Doug O'Neill.

Neither carefully groomed dirt nor synthetics would have saved that one.

25 Aug 2010 9:28 AM
Gary at Rough Creek

A necessary piece.

We didn't have to rely on hindsight here...these problems were predictable.  Plastic responds differently at different temperatures and moisture's a news flash!  

I was against installing these types of surfaces from the very beginning.  In part because of the (predictable) long-term health effects on horses and jockeys from inhaling this stuff into their lungs.  Emphasis here on "long-term."  Keep an eye on that issue down the road.

But then again, I didn't have a percentage of the company that was pushing these surfaces.  Another news flash...vested interests lack objectivity!

Get it together folks, and do what's best for the industry.  That's first and foremost the wagering public, the horses and the jockeys, the breeders and owners...and then the trainers.  If you are not on that list, you are just along for the ride.    

25 Aug 2010 10:56 AM

if we want tracks to survive, the most important component would be to get purses in line with revenues.  this means ignoring constant owner-trainer threats and demands for increased purses.  let 'em go to Pa or whereever. they'll be replaced in a hearbeat.

25 Aug 2010 1:16 PM
Paul Adams

Anyone who thinks this helps CA racing is a fool.  Yes there was a rush to put the surfaces in and it could have been handled better, but the article said the rush to change now is wrong.  The first time rain falls the problems will be apparent again.

25 Aug 2010 4:11 PM

Finally some people who realize that track surface is only 1 factor of breakdowns.  There are a lot of reasons, but synthetics have become a fix-all.  A good start would be to let new blood in the thoroughbred line, only 3 foundation sires, it's no wonder the bone structure & feet have gone to hell.  Plus weed out trainers/owners who obviously don't care about the health of their horse or rider.  Their licenses can be taken away.  

25 Aug 2010 4:54 PM

Qev, it had reached a point where there were so many horse fatalities with the dirt tracks in SoCal, particularly in San Diego that the major San Diego newspaper had a box on the page of the paper with a daily horse death count. Racing would have been banned altogether if they had continued with the status quo. Hopefully they keep the polytrack at Del Mar, the Cushion at HollyPark and the dirt at Santa Anita and let owners and trainers choose where they wish to compete.

25 Aug 2010 5:09 PM
an ole rail bird

in my long &enjoyabile study of horses in racing & all other disciplines. if the answer is to do what is the most natural,it is usually the right one. how much more natural can you get, than dirt & turf? happy raceing!!

25 Aug 2010 5:50 PM

Mike Rullo and Giddyup have it exactly right.  The arguments about surfaces obscures the fact that trainers are permitted to run unsound horses.  The synthetics were installed in an attempt to mitigate breakdowns and the bad press too much of that brings.  The vets at UC Davis have found that 90 - 95% of horses suffering fatal breakdowns had pre-existing stress fractures.  There's your villain, not the Pro-Ride.

26 Aug 2010 2:44 AM

As a trainer and owner in So Cal, I can tell you that we all hoped synthetics would work, but they really don't.  California needed better surfaces yes, they needed to fix the dirt ones they had that were greasy and too hard.  The Del mar polytrack disrupts the normal movement of horses that have evolved for thousands of years and have been bred to run on dirt.  some horses simply cannot adapt to these new surfaces, they are too different then dirt.  No owner of a possible Derby, breeders cup, or champion 2 yr old can afford to either mess up their good horses, or try to get them ready to compete on dirt by training them here.  This is one big reason Ca has lost so many horses and owners.  Dirt is the only option for Cal to regain its status as a great place to race. We don't need synthetic, we need well made dirt tracks on good bases. P Adams you have no clue.

26 Aug 2010 2:17 PM

I agree with Sarcasm1's last comment.This is now a golden opportunity for the authorities at SA to construct a state of the art dirt track, no ifs or buts, and in doing so show racing how good and fair a dirt surface can be and how safe it can be for the horse. Everything has got to be as right as is humanely possible,from the materials sourced for the surface, to the drainage to the maintenance machinery etc. If the above criteria are met, no-one should have cause to complain anymore.

27 Aug 2010 9:51 AM

Since the numbers from changing the tracks to synthetic here in the states still do not compare to the horses safety in Europe...guess it comes down to all the drugs we allow and the europeans do not...imagine that!!! Just take a look at entries and the majority of all the horses running are on Lasik...guess every horse born nowadays in the US are bleeders, but they are not in Europe!!!

28 Aug 2010 1:58 PM
needler in Virginia

Well said, Giddyup, but I'll call your more sanely bred and trained horses with a REALLY crazy dirt OR synthetics..AT ALL. Grass only. Beat THAT, willya??

Cheers and VERY safe trips to all.

28 Aug 2010 10:02 PM

The problem in So.Cal is NOT the Synthetic or Dirt top layer, it is simply that they don't have enough of a top layer, everyone wants the fast times.

Santa Anita also have a problem with their drainage, and unless the base is also redone the problem will still be their no matter what top layer they put down.

29 Aug 2010 10:45 AM

dirt surfaces are as variable as synthetic trax are. synthetic horses do well generally switching to dirt, but not so vice versa. turf horses tend to take well to polytrax pretty well. santa anita's problem is the soil under the trak and the general drainage problems that all of l.a. has in heavy downpours, as the soil is loose and gravelly and easily washed away, especially from runoff from the san gabriel mtns. as they suck the moisture out of rain clouds and create rivers of runoff thru arcadia.

29 Aug 2010 11:56 PM

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