PRIORITY NO. 1: HORSES OR HORSEPLAYERS?

by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

By Ray Paulick
Southern California-based trainer Bob Hess crystallized the often toxic debate over synthetic tracks as well as anyone I've talked with on the subject: “My horses are happy on it, and they're lasting a lot longer,” said Hess, a 44-year-old, second generation horseman and a graduate of Stanford University. “My clients are getting more bang for their buck. But without gamblers, we are nothing: there are no purses and no owners. The reality is the gamblers hate this shit. They have no confidence in it. From what they tell me, it's inconsistent and changes from track to track. Most gamblers tend to play speed, and if you play speed out here, you're screwed.”

Maybe that's why Sheikh Mohammed has installed a Tapeta Footings synthetic surface at the lavish Meydan racecourse that is due to open in Dubai later this month and will host the Dubai World Cup program in March. He apparently believes, after extensive testing, that it's safer for his and other people's horses. And, since gambling isn't permitted in Dubai, the sheikh won't be bombarded with emails and phone calls from unhappy horseplayers who may have had to reinvent how they handicap a race.

SYNTHETIC TEST TUBE

That certainly hasn't been the case in California, which, for better or worse, has been the test tube for synthetic racetracks, even though the surfaces also are installed at Keeneland and Turfway Park in Kentucky, Woodbine in Canada, Arlington Park in Illinois, and Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania.

Ron Charles, the Santa Anita Park president who on Monday strongly hinted that the beleaguered synthetic track will be ripped out and replaced with conventional dirt at the end of the current meeting, called synthetics one of the most polarizing issues he's ever seen in racing. The tracks have created a great divide among trainers, owners, track executives and regulators, and critics in the press and in online forums and blogs have made synthetics their perpetual punching bag and a principal reason for the industry's troubles.

Santa Anita, along with Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Golden Gate Fields, was required by a California Horse Racing Board mandate to install synthetic surfaces by Jan. 1, 2008. However, recently elected CHRB chairman Keith Brackpool was quoted in published reports as saying the CHRB would no longer hold any track to the synthetic mandate, one that was championed by former board chairman Richard Shapiro in reaction to reports of an unacceptably high rate of injuries and fatalities occurring on dirt.

One thing the CHRB didn't do was require all California tracks to install the same surface, a move supported at the time by Jerry Moss, a member of the CHRB and co-owner with wife Ann of unbeaten champion mare Zenyatta. John Shirreffs, Zenyatta's trainer, is one of the most vocal critics of the synthetic tracks.

When the mandate was approved by Shapiro and the other CHRB members (Jerry Moss abstained in the voting; in the original version of this article, the Paulick Report incorrectly stated that Moss voted in support of the mandate), Hollywood Park and Santa Anita opted to install Cushion Track, manufactured by an Australian company. Del Mar went with Polytrack, a company owned in part by the Keeneland Association, and Golden Gate Fields opted for Tapeta Footings, a surface created by synthetic track pioneer and former trainer Michael Dickinson.

Santa Anita has experienced the most problems—not with safety of the horses—but with drainage. The all-weather aspects of the surfaces were hampered by drainage problems almost immediately during the winter of 2007-08, during the winter of 2009, again last fall, and most recently this week when the track was closed to training and racing on Monday after heavy rains hit California. (Golden Gate Fields, meanwhile, with its Tapeta surface, didn't miss a beat during the recent storms that hit both Northern and Southern California.) The surface was altered in 2009 with polymers from another Australian surface known as Pro-Ride. It since has played host to two Breeders' Cups in 2008 and 2009 without incident.

Sources said Ron Charles had his hands tied when he went shopping for synthetic surfaces for Santa Anita. Track owner Frank Stronach is said to have told him not to go with Polytrack because it was owned by the “old boy's club” at Keeneland. Others confided to the Paulick Report that corners were cut in the installation process, especially in the selection of the sand that was used in the all-weather surface.

Santa Anita isn't the only track that's had problems. Hollywood Park and Del Mar's synthetic tracks have been criticized by horsemen and jockeys, but adjustments in maintenance alleviated some of the concerns. Some trainers who were early critics took a c'est la vie approach, figuring that criticizing the synthetic surfaces was akin to complaining about the weather: that it wasn't going to change anything.

However, late last year, the California Thoroughbred Trainers board of directors came under fire from a rival group of trainers who formed an organization called California Horsemen for Change, which wanted, among other things, to have the synthetic tracks replaced with dirt. CTT, under president Jim Cassidy, has been supportive of synthetics. The California Horsemen for Change threatened to petition to become the representative organization for trainers, a move that convinced the current CTT board to resign en masse, paving the way for new elections (which have just been completed). According to a source, the newly formed CTT board will be dominated by a slate of candidates backed by California Horsemen for Change, though the CTT has not yet made the election results public.

Supporters of the surfaces say many of the critics have short memories, reminding them that their protests over track conditions in part led to the CHRB's mandate for synthetics. A return to exactly the same thing in place before synthetics is not going to make anyone happy. There needs to be serious work on a track's base, cushion and drainage, no matter what type of material lays on top.

STATISTICS SUGGEST SYNTHETICS ARE SAFER
The criticism of the synthetic tracks by horsemen flies in the face of statistics showing they are safer than the dirt surfaces that preceded them, at least as far as fatalities are concerned. What hasn't been proven or disproven in statistical research is the common belief by many trainers that horses are sustaining more hind end or soft-tissue injuries on synthetics than they were on dirt.

In addition, a growing number of jockeys are saying that synthetic surfaces are more dangerous than dirt if they are involved in spills. Two jockeys, Rene Douglas and Michael Straight, suffered severe spinal injuries on Arlington's Polytrack this summer, and Julia Brimo suffered a spinal injury in a spill at Keeneland in this fall.

According to statistics compiled by the CHRB's equine medical director, Dr. Rick Arthur, the number of equine fatalities per 1,000 starts has declined significantly at every track in California. Santa Anita Park, for example, had 2.81 fatalities per 1,000 starts in the four years prior to the synthetic installation; that number has fallen to 1.64 per 1,000 since the conversion. (Hollywood Park has gone from 2.87 to 1.57/1,000; Del Mar from 2.47 to 1.65/1,000; Golden Gate Fields from 3.90 to 1.84/1,000). Click here to see the complete set of statistics.

One Southern California trainer who supports the synthetic tracks said it's his understanding Santa Anita has had 30,000 recorded workouts without an ambulance run. He said in the days of a sealed dirt track and the aftermath of sealing the track, it was difficult to even plan workouts because there were so many breakdowns during morning training hours.

Del Mar, which has studied results over its Polytrack surface extensively, has statistics showing an overall reduction in the number of post-race injuries, in addition to a reduction in fatalities. Click here to see Del Mar's statistical report.

“We think we have achieved a measurable increase in safety,” said Craig Fravel, Del Mar's executive vice president. “Has it done everything we had hoped it would do from the beginning? It probably has not lived up to that. Would we do it again? Yes. I don't think we've done as good a job as we should have done in making the case for the tracks in this tradition-bound industry. But we are confident we did the right thing.”

Many horseplayers insist they are betting less on California tracks since the synthetics were installed. Craig Dado, Del Mar's director of marketing, isn't convinced. “There's nothing we can point to that says the fans are betting less,” said Dado.

In fact, when synthetics were installed, they almost resulted in increased handle at some tracks, due to larger field size. But then came an economic crisis and a recession that saw wagering volume falling at most tracks around the country and fewer owners to fill races with horses.

“There has been criticism that the synthetic tracks are unpredictable,” said Fravel. “But winning favorites at Del Mar have been at 30-31%. There are a lot of differences: they are not as speed favoring as the old California tracks and some people have had to throw out their traditional handicapping methods. It creates issues for people. If they were winning money before and they aren't now, I consider their angst. There are a lot of people who don't like these tracks because they are different. But empirical analysis, an intelligent, thoughtful approach, has been lacking. I know handicappers who love the synthetics, partly because they are contrarians. Gamblers all over the world have been betting on that kind of racing for many years and doing so happily. Asking for people to do something different isn't easy.”

Back to Hess's belief, that synthetics are better for the horses but not as good for the handicappers, Fravel stood his ground. “We are going to make that choice in favor of what's best for the horses,” he insisted. “At the same time, it's incumbent on us to put out better information to make the handicapping issues less significant. I don't think these are mutually exclusive. “

Copyright © 2010, The Paulick Report

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