The cause behind the adoption of synthetic surfaces was a noble one—reduce the number of catastrophic breakdowns to a negligible level.
For the most part, the all-weather surfaces that were installed properly did just that. As is noted in the feature on page 22, the number of main-track breakdowns at Keeneland fell to 0.97 per 1,000 from 2009 through 2013. During those same five years the overall rate of breakdowns on all surfaces was 1.91 per 1,000 starts and 2.08 per 1,000 dirt starts. Some horseplayers complained about the inability to handicap for synthetics when Keeneland switched, but it didn’t prevent them from betting, and many seem to have forgotten all the complaining they did about the track bias with Keeneland’s old dirt surface.
Synthetics offered a lot of promise but also came with a lot of headaches. The biggest was the lack of knowledge about maintenance and all the adjustments that had to be made for a particular brand of synthetic to fit the climate of a track. Then not all the synthetics were installed the right way. Santa Anita installed two synthetic surfaces between 2007 and 2010, trying to get it right before eventually throwing in the towel and going back to dirt. Apparently all-weather surfaces may not be best suited to the exceptionally sunny climes of Southern California. The surface does seem to thrive in cooler and wet weather—as Woodbine, Presque Isle Downs, Turfway Park, and even Golden Gate Fields in Northern California have shown.
As tracks revert to dirt, however, let’s hope the industry remembers the earlier promise: to create racing surfaces that will lower breakdowns, not exacerbate them. The research done by Mick Peterson, executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, has already taken us far and should continue to advance us toward this goal. The increasing use of sophisticated equipment to monitor the implementation of maintenance procedures, soil composition, moisture, and the movement of material on the track is an extraordinarily valuable tool. With all we know now, we hope these new dirt surfaces being installed at Keeneland and Del Mar will be as safe as the synthetic surfaces they’re replacing.
Former trainer Michael Dickinson, the inventor of Tapeta Footings, predicts synthetics will make a comeback within the next 10 years, and they may, but perhaps we’ll see them resurface at more blue-collar racetracks where the racing population is older and collectively making more frequent starts. We’ve learned a lot about maintaining synthetics since 2007, so the earlier expectations of a lower-cost, safer racetrack may be available to provide a greater margin of protection to the sport’s bread-and-butter athletes.
As stewards of the Thoroughbred, we make a promise to each one born that, to the best of our ability, it will be raised with care. Then when it comes to racing, it will be nurtured, taught, and conditioned in a humane way that brings out the best of its physical gifts. Many won’t be stars but will give their best shot. And when they run, we want them to compete in an environment that makes their safety the highest priority. Not all surfaces can deliver that, but it’s a goal we should keep working toward and part of a promise we should never forget.