A cross-section of the racing industry addressed the New York Task Force on Retired Race Horses on the subject of synthetic surfaces at a one-day forum held July 29 at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Co. pavilion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Sixteen panelists, who comprised five moderated panels, spoke to 10 members of the task force and an audience of about 50 people.
The task force, established by state law last year, is studying the issues surrounding the installation of synthetic surfaces at New York tracks. Its members will report their findings to New York Gov. David Paterson.
The first panel to speak featured racing executives from tracks that are currently using synthetic surfaces. Those racing officials praised their racing surfaces for their ability to withstand extreme weather conditions, and the role they have played in the reduction of catastrophic injuries. Bob Elliston, the president of Turfway Park in Kentucky, and Irwin Dreidger, the track superintendent of Woodbine in Canada, were joined by Sally Goswell, the manager of Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland, which uses the Tapeta surface.
Elliston said Turfway’s Polytrack has led to fewer breakdowns and an increase in handle because there have been significantly less racing cancellations. Polytrack made its debut at Turfway, which races during the cold weather months, in September 2005.
“Our first year was nearly flawless,” Elliston said. “We saw handle increases from our holiday meets. We saw a dramatic reduction in our catastrophic breakdowns that first year -- 24 from our last full year of the conventional surface to three our first full year of the Polytrack surface.”
Elliston said Turfway’s synthetic surface needed to be fine-tuned in the extreme cold, and that experimentation with its wax content corrected the problem “with tackiness” the track was experiencing.
Last week at Woodbine, Dreidger said seven inches of rain fell and that the Polytrack remained fast, which would have been impossible with a conventional dirt surface.
Charles Hayward, the president of the New York Racing Association, said he believes more data is needed on the synthetic surfaces before NYRA would consider moving forward with installation at Aqueduct, Belmont Park, or Saratoga.
“There are no real specific track maintenance protocols (in place for synthetic surfaces),” Hayward said. “We need to develop more research, and more metrics, and a deeper understanding of the best practices.”
Trainers Mark Casse, Todd Pletcher, Dale Romans, and Nick Zito varied in their opinions regarding the use of synthetic surfaces for both training and racing.
Casse, whose main division is based at Woodbine, is a big proponent of synthetic surfaces, and said injuries in his barn have decreased significantly in the last two years.
“In my opinion, at this point in time, I would say yes that (synthetic surfaces) are safer,” Casse said. “On a bad (weather) day, when the tracks are bad, the synthetics are superior.”
Zito said some of his horses experienced “soft-tissue issues” as a result of training and racing on Keeneland’s Polytrack last year, and therefore he only started two horses at this year’s spring meet.
“I want to stay with dirt,” said Zito, who used to bring a large division to Keeneland before Polytrack was installed. “To me, God made dirt and grass.”
Romans and Pletcher both believe synthetic surfaces have their benefits, but want the option to race and train on conventional tracks that are well-maintained.
“To me, possibly the best place to try (a synthetic surface in New York) is Belmont, where you already have a mile-and-a-half dirt track, and (two turf courses),” Pletcher said. “There is a lot of room for a very good synthetic surface inside one of those three surfaces, which would give us the opportunity to train on it year-round and see how it does.”
Pletcher said a synthetic surface at Belmont would also allow NYRA to use it for racing when turf races are cancelled because of rain. Off-the-turf races result in lost wagering handle when horses are scratched because trainers don’t want to run on sloppy dirt tracks. In many cases, horses that have good form on turf are proficient on artificial tracks, so an off-the-turf race could be switched to a synthetic surface with very little disruption of the field size.
Romans, whose main base of operation is Churchill Downs, said he is completely satisfied with that track’s conventional surface, but likes the option to race on Polytrack at Keeneland and Turfway Park.
“Not one track will suit each racehorse,” Romans said. “We have the best situation in Kentucky.”
Jockeys Javier Castellano, Richard Migliore, and John Velazquez weighed in on the synthetic surface issue. Generally, they said they all like the surface, but Migliore, who has ridden over artificial surfaces in California the last two years, said a jockey can get a false sense of security. He said horses travel so smoothly over synthetic surfaces that when a horse is sore, a rider might not feel it.
“I rode a horse I might not have ridden on a conventional track,” said Migliore, who urged tracks to conduct more studies before rushing to install synthetic surfaces. “He broke his leg, and it was as fast as I went down in my life.”
California law mandates the use of synthetic surfaces at some of its tracks, but there have been problems associated with its use. Santa Anita Park, where the Breeders’ Cup World Championships will be held this year and next, needs a complete overhaul of its surface, which was originally Cushion Track, but will now be converted to Pro-Ride. Hollywood Park will likewise undergo a renovation of its Cushion Track. When Polytrack debuted at Del Mar last year, the running times were very slow. The track was tweaked this year, and several track records have fallen.
Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, said synthetic surfaces are “more difficult to maintain than anybody expected.”
Arthur said the biggest advantage to synthetic tracks is that they “certainly appear to reduce” fatal racing injuries.
“If you take the dirt fatality rate of 3.09 per 1,000 starts in California, and the synthetic fatality rate of 1.62, you get a difference of 1.47,” Arthur said. “Just do the math: In 24,000 starters on synthetic surfaces, we can save as many 35 horses from racing fatalities.”
Dr. Susan Stover from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, and Dr. Mark Hurtig of the Ontario Veterinary College in Canada, said track surfaces only play a part in injuries sustained by racehorses.
“I believe race surface has an effect (on injuries),” Stover said. “But it’s also used as a scape goat.”