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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