Keeping the Promise - by Eric Mitchell

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.



Leave a Comment:

Sandy McDonald

Very well said Mr. Mitchell, changing to dirt is a concern regarding your statistics, just hoping we can get it right. Horses & riders' safety should be our top priority in racing.

22 Jul 2014 10:22 AM

I really doubt synthetic surfaces will make a comeback. Major race tracks like Del Mar, Keeneland, & Meydan are all switching back to conventional dirt surfaces just like Santa Anita did.

Sad to say but we live in a world where profit comes first.

22 Jul 2014 11:36 AM

Very interesting article and about a subject that has intrigued me for some time.  Yet, such conflicting information that has been available, making me wonder if these past opinions were self-serving ones.  In the end, however, my thoughts are the same as always: Safety of the horses (and jockeys)always need to come first.  Without that, I'm outta here!  Fans do not want to see injuries and, all to frequently, these are life-ending injuries.

22 Jul 2014 12:30 PM
Glorious Goodwood

YOu know they run the Synthetics in England for Winter racing at Kempton, and Lingfield. They are soon installing the Tapeta surface at Wolverhampton. They going to installing the surface at other tracks also. They realize the value in the safety of the surface, and also this allows these courses to run racing in their winter climate, and hold up.  The fact that Meydan is switching their main track back to dirt, just to draw a few US runners who will win the race in a canter, is really a non issue as the WOrld cup is a dressed up GR3.  The Sheema Classic and Duty free ALWAYS draw much better quality fields and are true Gr1's.  Now the fact that the world cup is the premier race and won'r include any premier runner from any other racing jurisdiction just cheapened the whole meaning of the race.  The World cup should be switched with the Sheema Classic and make the premier race a Turf race going 12f.  Anyways, I am, and always will be PRO synthetic.

22 Jul 2014 1:41 PM

To me, the more important promise is to get the drugs, legal and illegal, out of the sport.  Get rid of race day drugs in particular, change conditioning methods to actually help strengthen a horse's bones, especially young horses.  Giving Lasix to 2 year olds at exactly the time they need minerals and nutrients for healthy bone growth is insane.  Stop the gallop outs at two year old sales. It would be interesting to know what the statistics showed for tracks in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.  Perhaps drugs being more prevalent might have more to do with breakdowns at tracks than the track surface.  Trying to separate the drug culture in the American sport from the other issues affecting the musculoskeletal health of our T'breds doesn't make sense. It's not just the racing surface, it is a combination of issues present in today's racing environment that weren't present in the past that should be looked at. It never is just one thing.

23 Jul 2014 3:29 AM
judy burkhart

There are fewer catastrophic breakdowns BUT a higher number of soft tissue injuries as the synthetic surface does not allow the foot to slip on landing, but stops it cold. A lot of these lead to long term rests and sometimes instant retirement. I love horses, but I also look at the tremendous costs involved in racing and many small owners cannot afford long term layoffs.

25 Jul 2014 11:53 AM

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