Synthetics Safer Than Dirt. Yeah But…

by | 12.17.2010 | 6:16am

The Thoroughbred industry is sufficiently polarized on the issue of synthetic tracks vs. dirt that no study – one that could be flawed or one that is scientifically endorsed through a peer review process – is likely going to change anyone's mind.

Damn the facts. The synthetic haters are going to keep on hating and those who support synthetic tracks as a safer alternative to dirt are going to keep on believing. It is a sorry reflection of how our society at large fails to address issues like adults.

The Jockey Club's release on Wednesday of updated statistics from the Equine Injury Database supported what the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association-commissioned review of Equibase results showed earlier this year: that synthetic tracks lead to reduced carnage.

So we now have two extensive bodies of evidence supporting the same conclusion. Horses are less likely to suffer fatal or career-ending injuries on synthetic tracks or turf than they are on dirt. But like so many useful industry white papers from the past, these studies, I'm afraid to say, will gather no momentum, only dust.

The naysayers were quick to trumpet Dr. Tim Parkin's preliminary assessment earlier this year that there was “no statistically significant difference” in fatal injuries on dirt vs. synthetics. In June, when Parkin uttered that phrase, the anti-synthetic Blood-Horse magazine's online headline read: “DATA: FATALITIES SIMILAR ACROSS ALL SURFACES.”

On Wednesday, after the difference in fatalities on dirt and synthetics became statistically significant,'s headline read: 'STATS LOOK AT FATAL INJURIES OVER TWO YEARS” completely ignoring the subject it headlined months earlier.

After the latest statistics were released, the synthetic critics lit up the Paulick Report and other websites with a series of “yeah-buts.” Yeah, but all the synthetic tracks are new, and it's unfair to compare statistics over those tracks with statistics from 50-year-old dirt course. Yeah, but how about those soft tissue injuries that horses racing or training on synthetic tracks come up with? Or yeah, but a higher class of horse races at the synthetic tracks than on dirt, and the statistics are skewed.

My favorite yeah-but comes from some whining horseplayers who say “Yeah, but I can't handicap on synthetics as well as I do on dirt because the track biases aren't as obvious as they used to be and horses perform different on these surfaces.” Sorry, you guys are at the back of the line on this one. The ONLY thing that should come into question is the safety and welfare of the horses and riders.

Dr. Rick Arthur, the Equine Medical Director for the California Horse Racing Board and an architect of the Equine Injury Database, which is wholly funded by the Jockey Club, told the Paulick Report the early statistics being released are “superficial” in the greater scheme of things.

“This is very preliminary,” Arthur said, “and what was released was a very superficial look at what were the obvious issues the industry wanted us to look at.”

In addition to the type of surface, Dr. Parkin – a senior fellow in clinical research at the University of Glaskow in Scotland — said the two years of data from the Equine Injury Database showed 2-year-olds were the least likely to suffer fatal injuries and that there was no increased risk to fillies who ran against male competition. But like the track surface issue, facts aren't likely to change many minds on the racing of 2-year-olds. It is repeated without substantiation by animal rights activists that racing 2-year-olds is dangerous stuff. The death of the filly Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby brought howls of protests from many corners saying fillies aren't up to competing against colts.

Arthur indicated the next steps for the Equine Injury Database is a peer-reviewed study by Parkin that could examine many other risk factors: class drops, pedigree, workout patterns, the distribution of injuries, the correlation between injuries and bumping or clipping heels during a race, whether or not horses injured during a race were on a vet's list.

“We'll be looking at a lot of the risk factors and try to figure out if there are any strategies that can make racing safer,” he said. “We have all the information that Equibase has, and all the information that the regulatory vets are collecting, including information on injuries that were not fatal. It's going to be a very powerful tool.”

The Equine Injury Database didn't start because of Barbaro, who was injured in the 2006 Preakness and subsequently died, or Eight Belles, Arthur said.  “This has been building up for a long time,” he said. “The number of fatalities has been going up for 15 years, there's been a steady decrease in the average number of starts This is an effort to try and be objective and understand what's going on.

“The information to come out of this will be very, very useful to help us develop strategies to make racing safer. I am very confident of that.”

Read the press release on the Equine Injury Database Updated Statistics.

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