No Matter the Racing Surface, Safety Should Be the Focus

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The California Horse Racing Board voted in 2006 to make synthetic or engineered racing surfaces mandatory at the state's major tracks beginning in 2008. Its members did so with the belief that synthetic surfaces are safer in the prevention of catastrophic injuries and fatalities.

They were right.

Using only a limited sample size from Turfway Park that showed a dramatic reduction in fatalities, the CHRB took a bold step trying to change an industry steeped in tradition. Eight years later, the data is far more definitive in demonstrating the safety advantage of synthetic tracks over dirt.

But the majority of horsemen were never convinced that the safety and prevention of catastrophic injuries trumps everything else in the sport. While admitting the number of serious concussion injuries may have been reduced, they complained that synthetic tracks led to higher incidence of muscle and soft-tissue injuries.

As the synthetic tracks aged, their maintenance became more difficult. During the sale and installation phase, synthetic track manufacturers promised low maintenance, little to zero watering, and consistence performance. All of those promises proved, to varying degrees, empty.

From the time the CHRB approved a waiver for Santa Anita Park to pull out its 3-year-old synthetic surface in 2010 and replace it with dirt, all momentum toward engineered surfaces stopped. The closing of Hollywood Park last December meant Del Mar was the only Southern California racetrack with a synthetic surface, so it became a question of when, not if, the north San Diego county track would return to its main oval to dirt.

Once Del Mar makes its change in 2015 (presuming the CHRB grants a waiver from the synthetic mandate that remains on the books), there will be six synthetic racing surfaces left in North America: Turfway Park and Keeneland in Kentucky, Arlington Park in Illinois and Woodbine in Canada are Polytrack; Golden Gate Fields in Northern California and Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania are Tapeta. It's probably a matter of time before these tracks are replaced, too, although none of its owners has indicated a change is forthcoming.

This reminds me of the AstroTurf era in baseball and football. Developed in the 1960s for the first indoor baseball stadium, Houston's Astrodome, AstroTurf was installed in many outdoor stadiums as well in the 1970s, especially those where both football and baseball were played. AstroTurf was immune to rain and didn't get dug up by cleats worn by baseball or football players. But many believed the hard surface led to more injuries, especially joints. Purists didn't like AstroTurf for how it changed the game: it was a faster surface, forcing baseball infielders to play farther back; fly balls that fell in the outfield bounced higher, often over the walls; and there no bad bounces. As new stadiums were built, many of them went back to natural turf.

But many modern stadiums now employ artificial surfaces that are far safer than the original AstroTurf. Those surfaces have evolved and are much more acceptable today, both by the athletes and fans.

Let's hope horse racing continues to work toward developing the best, safest surfaces possible, no matter what the future means for Polytrack, Tapeta, or any of the other synthetic tracks that have been installed.

Let's also not forget all of this came about because our sport has had problems with high-profile fatalities of horses. There was Go for Wand's horrific breakdown in the 1990 Breeders' Cup, Barbaro's injury in the 2006 Preakness, Eight Belles breaking both front ankles after the wire of the 2008 Kentucky Derby. In the years before Del Mar changed to Polytrack, the San Diego newspaper counted the deaths of horses the way papers today are counting medals at the Winter Olympics. It got so bad one morning's front page headline trumpeted that there were “No Deaths at Del Mar” the previous afternoon.

Industry leaders reacted, beginning with a call to action that led to the first Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit in October 2006. That gathering led to the creation of the Equine Injury Datebase. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Safety and Integrity Alliance Code of Standards was also created. There are stricter medication guidelines today, including controls on the use of anabolic steroids and in most racing states lower permitted levels of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone.

Some states have adopted new rules regulating claiming races that take away the incentive of running sore horses in hopes they become “someone else's problem.” Many racing commissions or racetracks have tightened their pre-race examination soundness protocols.

Racetrack safety has to be part of this approach, even if the era of synthetics is coming to an end. An industry turning its back on a surface that has statistically proven to be safer is not a winning public relations move. This is the time for the Equine Injury Database team to become even more proactive in pushing for reforms that statistics have shown will help prevent racing injuries.

Thanks to the Equine Injury Database there is now a baseline for measuring how many horses suffer catastrophic injuries at virtually every track across the U.S. Injuries happen, whether it's two horses running across a paddock of lush grass or a full field racing down the stretch of a dirt, synthetic or turf track. The goal for racing, no matter what the surface, is to reduce that number and make the sport safer and more palatable for the public.

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  • Doug McPherson

    Dirt can absolutely be a safer surface than synthetic tracks. The problem with dirt is that the people in charge decide they want fast times, so they make the tracks into speedways. That is where the problems arise. When dirt is deep and slow, it is very safe. Look at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg. It is a very deep track, the times are slow. They had one, just one, break down in 2013. These are very cheap horses, $2,500, $3,500, $5,000 claimers are common. On the safe surface, only one of these horses that many people would classify as “cripples” suffered a catastrophic industry. Dirt is the classic North American surface and it should stay that way. We just need to make sure that the dirt is maintained in a way that is safe for the horses. It’s not complicated.

    • Hopefieldstables

      Its true, dirt v synthetic is a false dichotomy. The issue is fast v slow. I prefer the synthetic tracks for the simple reason, they are evidently slower, kinder and safer. If dirt could also be slower, kinder and safer, it would be a non issue.

      • Hopefieldstables

        The ultra fast turf tracks also kill more than the slow turf tracks. The same is seen in Europe where firm turf tracks are not allowed.

        • Doug McPherson

          I think there need to be regulations made so that tracks cannot make their tracks into speedways. Not only will that make them safer, but it takes away a lot of track bias we see frequently in racing that bettors dislike. Deep, safe dirt tracks (and like you said, slower turf courses) are a win-win for everybody.

        • Ben van den Brink

          The firm turf are fully allowed, but mostly watered if they they tends too hard.

          • Hopefieldstables

            What I mean is that the Clerks of the Course are mandated by the BHA to aim for “good to firm”. Less than 3% of going readings (using the going stick) were recorded as firm over the last 4 years.

          • Ben van den Brink

            Most of our turf track are situated at an different underground than the US, and our climate is usually some different with more rain and some (not always) lower temperatures. Last year end some horses went to the BC because they needed an fast firm track for their best results.

      • Denise Mosimann

        Why not mix rubber tire shreds into the dirt to reduce the compaction aspect then it wont be so dangerous.

        • Tonto

          Been tried already- the dust was toxic.

  • Hoops and Horses

    The hope is that Del Mar ignores the California trainers who care about speed and installs a surface similar to the eastern tracks. I would make it clear that’s what I would be doing if it were me because I would rather see a safe surface where horses struggle to get 1:14 for six furlongs as opposed to one where they go 1:08 for six furlongs if they break down.

  • Nancy Taylor

    Personally, I have no preference between dirt and synthetic. However, what is diabolical for the players is what has developed in Ca. and Ky. Both circuits are unplayable for me because they yo-yo back and forth between the two opposites. PP’s mean little or nothing when SA horses go to DMR polytrack in July, or when Kee goes to CD dirt in April. Both states need to choose one or the other for me to get interested.

  • Lina_TX

    Sad to see that the push from speed-oriented trainers is once again winning out.

    • Bo


    • loopsteer

      Very keen observation. Its the way of the west

  • Bo

    All I can say, if they change and deaths pick up they will lose there fan base this time! It will mark the end of the sport! They want the cake and eat it too!! That want happen! Period..

    • Guest

      IF? It’s a guarantee that deaths will pick up. The sport does not care about its horses – or its jockeys for that matter.

  • Hoops and Horses

    One thing you have to remember about the AstroTurf era in other sports:

    Grass fields in the 1960’s and earlier were not nearly as well maintained as they are today, and by late in the NFL seasons, many of them were actually dirt surfaces as all the grass had been lost. That was a big reason why many stadiums went to AstroTurf in the late 1960’s and early ’70s, and really was notable after Candlestick Park became the first stadium to tear out its AstroTurf (installed I believe in 1971 when the 49ers moved there) and went back to grass in I believe 1979. The field at Candlestick for some late-season 49ers games were legendarily bad as the field was often a muddy mess and was a HUGE concern in fact during the 49ers first playoff run of the Joe Montana era following the 1981 season and a huge deal was made about the field at Candlestick. As the 80s progressed, Prescription Turf improved grass surfaces tremendously to where more and more stadiums went back to grass until the newer generations of Artificial Turf came along that play much more like real grass.

    That is something to note about the evolution of surfaces that people in Horse Racing can learn from.

  • Ian Howard

    The future of the sport depends upon better understanding of the break down process. While track surface plays a part in the type of injuries horses experience we have much to learn about identifying factors that put horses at greater risk regardless of surface.
    We need to better understand if breakdowns occur in a single event or part of an ongoing failure of the structure of the horse that continues over a period of time. Are there markers that can identify the likelihood of breakdown and how do we identify them.
    We as horsemen are far more aggressive with non steroidal and steroidal anti inflammatories than we were forty or fifty years ago. We need to understand if there is relationship between aggressive veterinary practices that replace rest with sports medicine and the unacceptable breakdown rate experienced in North America.
    The Breeders Cup employs a team of vets to monitor the condition of the most valuable, best conditioned horses to reduce the risk of breakdowns, no other population receives that level of scrutiny. As an industry we need to push for safer surfaces but we also need to stop pushing those horses whose form or condition screams for time off. We probably can’t eliminate all breakdowns but surely we can do far more than we have done to reduce the risk to the animals in our care.

    • betterthannothing

      Very well said Ian.

  • Bill Casner
    • Ian Howard

      One of the problems with that set of data is that it doesn’t include breakdowns in the mornings nor does it account for the history of individuals so we are actually comparing similar animals on different surfaces.

      • RayPaulick

        Ian, a serious question. Are you a researcher, statistician or scientist?

        The data has been examined and presented by Dr. Tim Parkin, a veterinarian and epidemiolgist from the University of Glasgow, and in his last report he said he believes it is statistically significant because of the large numbers involved over several years.

        • Ian Howard

          I’m a trainer of thirty five years who had a very small part in a breakdown study done in Kentucky several years ago by Drs. Cohen and Mundy. One of the findings was that horses identified by commission vets as being at increased risk actually did break down at a greater rate.
          My purpose in writing is not to suggest we should not continue to look for a safer surface but to continue to look at other factors that I believe contribute to the problem.
          Having trained on dirt and polytrack I have seen a dramatic shift from front end injuries to hind end. While the numbers have dropped in the afternoon there are still significant numbers in the morning that are not included in the breakdown rate.
          There are horses that are athletes that have the aches and pains common to any physical endeavor and then there are sore horses that have serious issues. My belief is that too often we assume we know what is wrong with a horse and too many horses compete with the beginnings of what prove to be fatal injuries. There is some work with MRIs being done that suggest that horses that x-ray clean have subchondral bone issues that increase the risk of breakdown.
          I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers but my experience for what it is worth is that although track surface is important. it is to often used as an excuse. To be frank horsemen must take greater responsibility for sending horses to the track that either they have not identified what a horse’s problem is or they have used drugs in an inappropriate manner to mask a problem they may not know exists. Catastrophic injuries occur for a reason and it isn’t always the track. For all of us a mirror and a little soul searching would prevent a lot of breakdowns.

          • Tim Parkin

            Dr Tim Parkin here. Ian you make a good point. Use of statistical modelling to account for multiple factors is the “gold-standard” analysis. This sort of analysis is technically difficult and will take time, but is underway. Nevertheless the raw data demonstrating statistically significant differences in the risk on different surfaces is valid – the size of effect and strength of the associations are too big to ignore. In addition, in almost all previous models of this type of work conducted around the world the risk of injury is associated with the firmness of the racing surface and the speed at which horses race. Dirt surfaces, being generally faster than synthetic or turf surfaces, are very likely to be more risky, regardless of the type of horse competing on them.

          • RayPaulick

            Thanks for joining in on the conversation, Dr. Parkin. Much appreciated, and thanks for the good work you’ve done.

          • Ian Howard

            I think Bill Casner makes a valid point about the slide phase of the stride and it’s relation to injuries on polytrack. Anecdotally in seven years training on polytrack we have not had a quarter crack and seen a drastic reduction in chip fractures in ankles or knees.
            What we have seen, again, anecdotally is an increase in fractures of the humerus and tibia that usually are identified intially with scintigraphy. My belief is that because the foot seems to be locked into the track surface the amount of torque on the skeleton is more significant than we are used too.
            Late last year we seemed to have had a large spike in serious injuries. Is this because the track has changed with maintenance and temperature or the horse population is experiencing the effects of accumulated wear and tear of nine months of racing and training and once healthy limbs are failing to remodel adequately and thus at greater risk of injury.
            Track surface obviously has a role because it’s nature dictates the amount of work that the limbs of horses are required to perform. Also it seems intuitive that the amount of force applied to the legs of horses is determined by conformation and the ability of the racing surface to dissipate the concussive forces caused by a leg striking a surface at forty miles an hour. We as horsemen and veterinarians must do a better job of developing an understanding of risk factors that we can control. Animals whose risk of injury has increased beyond an acceptable level must be removed from training or racing.
            One final thought, is a catastrophic injury part of a disease process or is it an episode that occurs in one moment of time without relation to events that have preceded that moment. I think it is the first and we must do much more to understand that process and the various factors that increase the likelihood of breakdowns.

          • Bill Casner

            Ian—Your thoughtful dialog is refreshing. Most trainers are not willing to examine and question. As you have stated, there are certainly a multitude of things that contribute to injuries. One of the most common is just ignoring the horse when he is “telling” you something. Good trainers are keenly aware of the sultries in the way a horse trains. Ignoring those changes and hoping the horse “will work thru it” is not always in the best interest of the horse. Definitive diagnostics is imperative in making the right decision. So many times giving the horse a bit of time will go along way in preserving the horses career and the owners investment. As an ex-trainer, I understand the challenge of “stall management” especially if you have a limited number of horses. In regards to your last thought, virtually all of your top vet. surgeons will testify to the underlying accumulative pathology that precedes most every catastrophic injury.

          • Ian Howard

            Dr. John Peloso is doing some really important work with subcondral bone density using a standing MRI to evaluate bone density in horses with lameness who do not present the typical symptoms of the types of joint problems we see at the racetrack.
            Also he is evaluating horses that suffered injuries and I think it will help shed light on how the bone becomes fatigued to the point it can no longer tolerate the stress racing places on it.
            Every trainer needs to be their own harshest critic. The decisions we make about what are manageable issues and how aggressive to be with medication is at the core of what we do. There are no mulligans in this business and mistakes can be fatal to people and horses. For too long this industry has looked at the horse as a disposable commodity and we deserve much of the bad press we have recieved.
            If we don’t change this sport will continue its slide into oblivion and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

          • betterthannothing

            “Every trainer needs to be their own harshest critic. The decisions we
            make about what are manageable issues and how aggressive to be with
            medication is at the core of what we do. There are no mulligans in this
            business and mistakes can be fatal to people and horses. For too long this industry has looked at the horse as a disposable
            commodity and we deserve much of the bad press we have received. If we don’t change this sport will continue its slide into oblivion and we have no one to blame but ourselves.”

            Pure gold!

          • Bill Casner

            Amen Ian…..I look forward to meeting you in person sometime in the future.

          • Bill Casner

            Ian–You make a very good point–injuries are certainly multi-factorial and surface is one component. I was on a committee that did extensive hi-speed videos of various surfaces and the finding were eye-opening. The main difference between synthetic surfaces and dirt is the slide factor. Synthetic has a shorter slide than dirt. The ideal appears to be around 3 to 4 inches. Most dirt tracks have a longer slide of 6 to 12 inches. The longer the slide the more “torque” a horse places on his legs if he does not have perfect stride bio-mechanics (visualize a toed in or toed out horse in a slide). A longer slide also exaggerates the drop of the pastern by delaying break-over. If a horse has a problem knee, ankle or suspensories, longer slide will aggravate the condition. Less than 3 inches of slide is also detrimental because it can stop a horse too quick. Synthetic tracks have to be properly maintained to prevent them from becoming “sticky” and have the proper cushion give. In the beginning many trainers continued to use toe grabs on the rear and this created so many rear end injuries due to jarring. Kerchart has developed a shoe called the Synergy that helps give a bit of slide to rear foot without sacrificing traction.

          • loopsteer

            It has evolved that large percentage of horses that run on the Tapeta track run with no hind shoes or no shoes at all. With great success I might add. I would like to thank Mr. Howard & Mr. Casner for contributing to a great post. I found it very insightful. also Kudos’s to Mr. Paulick for providing this great forum.

      • Bill Casner

        The morning numbers were actually almost identical to the afternoon numbers at Santa Anita both on the cushion track and dirt track–there was a 10 fold increase in ambulance haul offs in the morning after re-converting to dirt.

        • [email protected]

          You guys need to breed sounded horses instead of those turn and burns. Then they’ll be able to handle dirt, natural surface for the animals.

          • Black Helen

            When racing went from private stables of the wealthy to syndicates, the emphasis became on speed. Babies are drugged and drilled for insanely fast work times, much faster than racing fractions.

            No young horse’s still maturing body and bones should be put under that much pressure. Fast times sell 2 yr olds, quite often, once the drugs wear off, the horse is nowhere the same animal.

            There is also the issue of number of races on a card and the simulcasting and betting time. More time in between races to bet when the races are shorter.

            Money and greed are generally more important these days than the horse. Pathetic

            And WHY do 95% of the horses need to race on bute??
            It should ONLY be used when needed!!
            It lessens a horse’s ability to recognize when he himself is hurting before it turns into a catastrophic injury, It masks pain.


    • Concerned

      I’d like to see the numbers comparing Santa Anita’s death rates before, during and after the two different synthetic surfaces were installed to its dirt surfaces. We are all aware the rate is higher on dirt, but I’d like to know exactly how much higher…

      • Figless

        The change back to dirt at SA and DMR will provide a fair comparison of their aging artificial surfaces with brand new dirt surfaces and would be a good starting point for future research since its the same horse population.
        Another fairer comparison that could be done now would be comparing non claiming, non state bred, ALW and MDN races for 3 and older horses at top class meets such as GP, BEL, SAR to KEE, SA and DMR over the last five years. Not perfect since some of those dirt surfaces are older but better than lumping minor league bottom claiming races in with Grade 1’s.

      • Bill Casner

        Equibase has an on going study called the CEDNF(career ending did not finish). It takes those horses that were DNF’s and did not run back in 6 months (eliminates those horses that dumped a rider etc.). The findings are virtually identical to the JC Injury Data Base studies over the past 6 years. The one thing both studies show that synthetic surfaces have continued to get safer every year with diminishing injuries and this is because of an improved understanding of maintenance procedures (we had to go thru this at WinStar on our training track) and also trainers learning the proper ways to shoe and the development of shoes specific for syn. tracks that allow more slide and prevent “jarring” caused by shoes designed for dirt.

      • Sue Finley

        Dear Concerned,
        Here you go.

        I’d recommend everyone who has participated in this forum take some time to look through these statistics, because they’re very revealing.

  • fb0252

    I am just glad to see the post. let the focus on injury prevention begin!

  • Jack Mehoff

    Golden Gate uses tapeta to deal with the rain more than anything, don’t see that changing any time soon.

  • Black Helen

    The statistics given in the report above clearly show that synthetic tracks greatly reduce the injury and fatality rates.

    Drugs are a much worse problem.
    Until we have a National Governing body to regulate our sport, nothing much is going to change.

    The tracks can’t afford to loose their “Super Trainers”, and the Super Trainers can’t afford to loose their nefarious chemical advantages.

    So many Emperors in new clothes that we now have a nudist colony!!

    • betterthannothing

      “Drugs are a much worse problem.”

      BH, well said.

      People choose to use drugs to cut corners, kill pain, enhance performance, maximize the exploitation of horses and dump the injured ones onto others. People refuse life-saving transparency of equine medical records. People choose to run horses over dangerous sealed and muddy tracks. People choose to breed for speed, drug and drill babies into insane speed over distances which mean nothing. People choose to buy them. People mistake tremendous but immature class for precocity then break them down.

      People are far more dangerous to horses than any and all decent, well maintained racing surfaces. People like to blame everything but themselves.

      • rachel

        Betterthannothing, this isThe best comment of all.

      • Tonto

        Exactly- 30 minutes on the walker and a visit from the vet does not make a fit, sound racehorse. Horses run on their DNA until they run out of legs,then the owner is told you need another horse.

  • Figless

    Clearly racing under 6f should be banned as that is statistically more dangerous per the chart provided. And racing more at 2yo should be encouraged, since its safer.
    Sarcasm, I think.

    While I am not a researcher, statistician or scientist, I did study statistics in college, work in the financial industry, and have a fairly solid grasp of numbers. I invest in the pharmaceutical industry and regularly read the results of their drug trials.
    The linked stats clearly hint that synthetic racing MAY be safer, in theory, enough to warrant further study. However, this study would fail on many levels if it were presented to the FDA, it would be kicked back for further study.
    Research should be undertaken comparing results on similar racing circuits with horses at similar racing quality, over a period of time before a definitive conclusion is reached. This “research” is compromised by comparing horses of differing classes running for the most part on superior racing circuits (KEE, Delmar, SA) with those running on the minor circuits. For instance, turf racing in this country is often restricted to higher class horses, which may in part account for the disparity in breakdown rates between dirt and turf.
    As Ian Howard indicates, there is more to the picture than meets the eye, career ending soft tissue injuries are just as catastrophic to the horses and connections while outside the public eye.
    And no one is discussing the potential health risks, to jockeys and horses, of inhaling this artificial surface over a long period of time.
    Personally I find this entire discussion disingenuous, since its all based on perception, a public relations ploy to quiet the criticism from the media and general public. Perhaps I am cynical but the catastrophic breakdown rate is insignificant in the life of a horse compared to the fate that ultimately awaits most of them yet the industry does little to address the welfare of OTTB’s.
    I remain unconvinced that running on artificial surfaces is significantly safer than running over a well maintained dirt surface with state of the art drainage. I feel strongly that the cause of many breakdowns is a combination of poor horsemanship (sometimes intentional) and poorly maintained racing surfaces. My opinion, to which I am entitled, and I think many agree.

    • RayPaulick

      Golden Gate Fields, Turfway Park and Presque Isle Downs offer a steady diet of low-end claiming races on synthetic tracks, so not sure your argument stands up. Your point about turf racing overall having higher quality horses makes more sense.

      • Figless

        Yes but there are far more low end starters in the dirt sample on a percentage basis. I believe more study is justified by the stats, but am not going to complain about the return to dirt in the meantime.

    • Bill Casner

      Both the JC Data Base study and Equibases CEDNF studies both took all of the variables you discussed and had data on each and every one. With over 2 million horses starts on synthetic surface the data for the safety of these surfaces is compelling and is certainly “statistically significant”.
      Woodbine has more horse starts than any other synthetic track with every level of horse and their injuries are one of the lowest of any comparable racetrack.

      Apples to Apples–2006 Del Mar dirt 14 fatalities—2013 Del Mar poly 1 fatality.
      Converting back to dirt has dramatically increased breakdowns at Santa Anita.


      • Hopefieldstables

        Well said.

      • Figless

        I went to the JC database, what I could access, and see only the general statistics previously provided. I would love to see those stats broken down further by distance, class, surface, track condition and track. A link would be much appreciated.
        I find it hypocritical that many of those complaining (not you, generalization) most about what happens in public in the afternoon continue to breed and race horses without concern for their aftercare, which is WAY MORE APPALLING than the difference between a 0.1% and 0.2% rate of catastrophic breakdown. 90% of OTTB’s end up in a bad situation, a minutia of those are fatalities on the racetrack. I have heard it argued that a few minutes of distress on a racetrack followed by death by injection is a preferable to being hauled a thousand miles without food and water to a slaughter plant. Not saying I agree, but the angst toward synthetic track skeptics is somewhat misplaced.
        And again, not directed at you in particular, but much of the concern this industry puts forth is about public relations as much as it is actual concern for the horse. This is a much larger issue for the industry.

  • McGov

    It is sad to see the momentum swing against synthetic surfaces. IMO, more understanding of the different blends and maintenance as well as training methods is needed but even at this beginning stage it would seem the more logical choice over dirt IF the health of the horse was paramount in horse racing. Unfortunately, more horses will now suffer as a result of politics not science. Seems to me science takes a back seat to politics almost every single time….take a look around…it’s 2014 and we are still putting gasoline in our cars. The progress of few at the expense of many. Dirt tracks will prevail because dirt stallions prevail. Not because they are safer.

  • Lou Baranello Former Steward

    Any one who believes that trainers don’t have the strongest lobby in the industry is simply not paying attention. They even train their owners on issues such as this. The trainers lobby and the decision makers cave. Something they do very well. The horses need an ombudsman!

  • Allan Buck

    Reality check. Horses are not designed to run on penetrating surfaces. The primary problem is the penetration of the hooves into the running surfaces. The hooves should penetrate no more than one inch, then you would see improvements. Endurance horses do not have breakdowns, yet they are trotted and galloped for miles and miles on varying terrain that is usually hard surfaces.

    • Old Timer


      Endurance horses “trotted” and “galloped” ie. didn’t run full out so making that comparison isn’t a sound one I’m afraid.

      Hooves are going to penetrate more than an inch even on synthetic, and thats not a bad thing. Its actually more a function of absorption on the part of the surface then penetration into the surface, along with the slide component of the surface to give and take simultaneously that makes for a good surface to run on.

      The problem with all these posts is that surfaces change from day to day, hour to hour, hell minute to minute in rain or sleet. No surface is going to take care of all ill’s. Some horses are simply more pron to differing types of injuries than others.

  • jttf

    del mar is making a statement when they are looking for a different kind of dirt. they dont like the results of santa anita’s track surface. hopefully, they are looking at the breakdown rates of different dirt tracks.

  • fb0252

    Seems to me that certain artificial surfaces are visibly safer. One can see the reduced concussion as the horses are running.

  • dbrown

    Do our breakdown rates compare with those in England and Europe where they race primarily on grass and without race day meds?

    • Ben van den Brink


  • Andrew A.

    Polytrack bites!

    • RayPaulick

      Thanks for your contribution to an otherwise intelligent discussion.

      • Andrew A.

        To expand on my comments…………………………… Synthetic surfaces were nothing like they were sold…. “no maintenance” “no watering” “much bigger fields”………. They cost 3X more to maintain and when they wear out like the base at Del Mar is wearing out how much does it cost to put in a new synthetic surface with a new base?

        The surface at Del Mar is notoriously inconsistent “biases” and is greatly affected by the temperature. When it is cooler like it was last year the track is tighter and there are less fatalities and injuries. When it really hot it’s a whole different story.

        I agree that maybe it took this era to make the dirt surfaces more safe so that’s one positive. On the other hand it’s like you’re trying to bring back synthetic surfaces when they are officially “done”.

        Hope that helps.

        • Ben van den Brink

          How much is a horse worth. A lot of people just think of their buisiness and not in the safety from the horses. I just call that plain abuse.

          synth tracks are only done, because a number of big trainers, like them speedways, they do not care a damn bit if horses breaks down or not. They tell different stories, but acting is different than telling.

          • Andrew A.

            By that logic you’re saying that a number of big Trainers don’t mind losing horses (they make their living by racing them) as long as they have dirt. Doesn’t make sense.

          • Ben van den Brink

            Who were the ones that were pushing for dirt again at Santa Anita, the big ones, because they thought they need a dirt track to stay in tune with churchill downs and they did not care a tiny little bit about them breakdowns. Results are counting, horses lives not.

          • Andrew A.

            No, not just the big ones but the overwhelming majority. Once again, overwhelming majority.

          • Ben van den Brink

            You mean the TOC. Who have an important vote there???

          • Andrew A.

            I mean most of everyone. Read the DRF article just up.

          • Ben van den Brink

            Looks please to all statistics, and tell than with dry eyes that the change is for the horses

          • Andrew A.

            That was the original argument. If you wanted dirt you wanted horses to die. Stop.

  • the wizard

    Some trainers are winning at a 40 to 50 percent rate over extended periods and we’re worried about track surfaces? Some claim horses and win back at nearly 50 percent. Track surfaces aren’t what’s wrong with this sport.

    • RayPaulick

      The industry should be capable of addressing multiple issues at one time.

      • betterthannothing

        It tends to take the path of least resistance and blame and change things rather than blame and change its people as it must.

      • Sue Finley

        Ray, I couldn’t agree with you more.

    • biggar

      Who are the trainers that win at 40 to 50% rate over extended periods. I don’t see them listed in Equibase, or any tracks that I visit?

  • Ben van den Brink

    Almost any muscles injury will heals in time, deadly breakdowns will not heal ever.

  • Mimi Hunter

    The surface of the track is only part of the problem – I don’t think it’s even half. Horses have to have correct conformation to help with their safety. Horses that are running on crooked legs just out and out will not stay sound – so they get an injury related to poor conformation and what happens? They get retired to the breeding shed to make more crooked legged foals who will race and get injured or worse. The other problem is the misuse of medications – particularly steroids – one of the side effects of steroid use is long bone fractures. I generally keep track stuff like this – I usually use Ruffian as an example because her pasterns were too long – I recently saw an extended pedigree – BOTH her parents had multiple broken legs.
    It’s time horse racing gets it’s head out of the sand. Sure the track surface can make a big difference, but it isn’t the whole game.

  • Ben van den Brink

    CHRB shall establish safety standards to improve the safety of horses, riders and workers at the racetrack. Business and Professions Code section 19481 (a).
    This means less breakdowns and certainly not more.

  • Tonto

    The old Tanforan Racetrack was one of the best in California- 6f in 1:12 was good time. Horses won there and stayed sound that pulled up’ bad’ on the faster tracks. The stall contends – straw and manure were spread on the track at the end of the meet- oats were 6 foot tall after a rain- then they disked. (Worked the tack a lot.) in the off season.. Riding on it was like a trampoline- it had bounce .It drained well and known as ‘kind’ to bad footed horses. Turf Paradise wanted a lot of free publicity for very fast times- many cracked sesimoids and coffin bones.from the superhard- no cushion -track surface.

  • Tonto

    Look up some of the dirt only racing records in the 1930-1970 time
    frame. Horses made 75-150 lifetime starts. stakes as well as claimers.
    More training, less time on walkers, fewer meds more care . trainers
    with more ‘horse sense’, races for 3 year old only (not and up) , more
    owner/trainers. All combined to make better racing for both horses and

  • Tonto

    Exactly- 30 minutes on the walker and a visit from the vet does not
    make a fit, sound racehorse. Horses run on their DNA until they run out
    of legs,then the owner is told you need another horse. “if they can’t stand training ,they can’t stand running”

  • Elizabeth Blythe

    It seems any comparison of injury/breakdown rate of synthetic surface vs. dirt would have to be invalid simply because all synthetic tracks were completely rebuilt from the ground up to begin with. You can’t compare that to a dirt track that is not also a completely rebuilt surface, including the base.
    How many decades has it been since Belmont, Saratoga, Churchill, Oaklawn, etc. had all the cushion removed & the base redone?
    You can’t have heavy water trucks & harrows circling the very part of the track the horses race over up to 12 times a day without some negative compaction of the base in addition to weather related problems from freezing/thawing or heavy rain, especially tracks that are only used for a short period of time during the year.
    They used to have big maroon 3 wheel tractors with balloon tires pulling the harrows in NY, but they seem to have disappeared, perhaps because of NTRA/BC marketing relationship with ‘Runs like a Deere’.
    Hollywood Park’s water truck only went clockwise around the outside rail with an extended boom to the inner rail, which kept the weight of that thing off the racing strip.
    I have seen so many tracks where this heavy equipment literally bounces up & down because of the ‘washboard’ areas in the base.
    Surely with the technology available today & determination on the part of management to keep the base in the best possible condition, racing on dirt surfaces CAN be just as safe, perhaps using the drainage systems of the synthetics without the porous macadam layer. Wouldn’t taking impeccable care of the base be cheaper than ripping everything out to install a synthetic surface?

    • Hopefieldstables

      Can we compare the newly installed Santa Anita dirt to the previous synthetic?

  • Bill Casner

    Exactly Sue—In 2010 Santa Anita had a fatality rate of .59 on their synthetic surface. The subsequent meet on dirt it skyrocketed to 3.45 per thousand–nearly a 6 fold increase. The last stats from 2012 show a death rate at 2.93 which is still 5 times above the last meet on synthetic. These are not just numbers—these are horses that are breaking legs off and blowing out suspensories that have to be euthanized. What makes Del Mar think that the same won’t occur to them. How can any of the decision makers at Del Mar make this decision in good conscious knowing that it will absolutely cost the lives of more horses?

    • Sue Finley

      I don’t understand the argument that if they don’t switch to dirt, they’ll be the “only” Southern California track that doesn’t have dirt. There are only two. Putting aside Bill’s excellent point above about how terrible this is for the animals, and look at it from a marketing perspective. Racing is going to spend money to get people to come out for a day at the races. Much of the marketing is aimed at promoting the Thoroughbred as a majestic, glorious athlete. And then, you’re going to give those fans a five times greater likelihood of watching those animals suffer a horrific injury and die in front of them. Santa Anita’s synthetic average of .59 per thousands starters is basically one per two-thousand starts. If you figure there are 100 starters a day, that’s one for every 20 days of racing. 2.93 is almost three per thousand, or one for every three days of racing. How does that make any practical sense?

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