by | 11.17.2010 | 12:46am

After all the problems Santa Anita experienced with its Cushion Track synthetic surface this past season, why did track management decide not to go back to a conventional dirt track and instead commit to installing a synthetic surface manufactured by the Australian company Pro-Ride? Aside from the fact the California Horse Racing Board has mandated all major California racetracks use synthetics instead of dirt for their main surface, Santa Anita was merely following the wishes of horsemen who were asked which type of surface they preferred.

The decision by Santa Anita management took on added significance because the Breeders' Cup world championships will be contested there in both 2008 and 2009, marking the first time the former dirt races will be held over a synthetic racetrack.

In March of this year, Ed Halpern, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, sent a letter to Magna executive Frank Stronach and Ron Charles detailing the results of a survey conducted among Santa Anita-based trainers. The Paulick Report obtained a copy of that letter.

The letter begins: “The board of directors of the California Thoroughbred Trainers has asked that I write to request that you take whatever action may be necessary to retain a synthetic surface at Santa Anita. One only needs to look at the facts to support this conclusion. Since the introduction of synthetic surfaces in California, barn areas are now filled, trainers have moved to California from across the country, field size has grown dramatically, injuries are down, and horses are racing more often. Those facts speak loudly and are irrefutable.”

Halpern then outlined the survey, which asked trainers to rate their surface preference five different ways:

-Strongly favor dirt

-Favor dirt


-Favor synthetics

-Strongly favor synthetics

Trainers were contacted personally and could sign their name or respond anonymously. Ninety-two of 115 trainers with horses in training at Santa Anita responded.

To quote further from Halpern's letter:

“Of all those responding who strongly favored dirt or strongly favored synthetics, 70% strongly favored synthetics.

“Of all those responding who indicated that they either strong favored or just favored dirt or synthetics, 70% favored synthetics.”

Eleven trainers were neutral.

Trainers representing 90% of the horses in training at Santa Anita favor synthetics, according to Halpern. “Hence, there is is overwhelming support for synthetics from trainers who have trained at Santa Anita,” Halpern wrote. “That support exists in spite of the problems that were encountered due to the failure of the Cushion Track product. Trainers favoring synthetics cited numerous reasons for their support. They indicated that their support was based on a significant decrease in injuries, the ability to continue to train and run on a safe and non-sealed surface, even during periods of rain, and the ability to train horses through minor injuries. The latter benefit means significant and substantial savings for owners who no longer need to turn out horses for months before resuming training.”

One month later, the CTT sent a second letter to Stronach and Charles with the results of a survey of trainers based at the Northern California racetrack, Golden Gate Fields, also owned by Magna Entertainment. Golden Gate has a Tapeta Footings synthetic surface.

Here is how those 53 trainers responded:

-Strongly prefer dirt…2

-Prefer dirt…3

-No preference…3

-Favor synthetic…17

-Strongly favor synthetic…28

The opinions of California trainers seem to be supported by statistics obtained by the Paulick Report. At every California track where synthetic surfaces have been installed, the number of fatalities per 1,000 has declined, as follows:

Hollywood Park

Before synthetics, 2.87 per 1,000; after synthetics, 0.97 per 1,000
Del Mar

Before synthetics, 2.47 per 1,000; after synthetics, 0.81
Santa Anita

Before synthetics, 2.81; after synthetics, 1.71
Golden Gate Fields

Before synthetics, 3.90; after synthetics, 2.50
Bay Meadows (did not convert to synthetics)

Conventional dirt, 3.19


Before synthetics, 3.19; after synthetics, 1.37

A national survey of races charting horses that did not finish (DNF) a race due to various factors shows the following percentages on different surfaces:

-Dirt DNFs, 1.10%

-Turf DNFs, 0.94%

-Synthetic DNFs, 0.61%

Numerous training centers have now added synthetic surfaces, as has the OBS sale company in Ocala, Fla.

By Ray Paulick

Copyright ©2008, The Paulick Report

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