Beneath the Surface
by Ray Paulick
Date Posted: 6/27/2006 10:31:51 AM

Ray Paulick
Editor-in-Chief

Even when horse racing takes two steps forward it manages to take, at minimum, one step back.

In California, where the safety-conscious California Horse Racing Board has mandated synthetic surfaces by the end of 2007 for the state's major tracks, an opportunity arose for the various track operators to seek a common solution.

By working together, the tracks (or an association representing them) could have settled on one of a handful of synthetic surface suppliers, providing consistency for horses racing on the circuit. They might even have gotten a break on the cost of materials and installation, which will run in the tens of millions of dollars for the five tracks (Del Mar, Santa Anita Park, and Hollywood Park in Southern California, and Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows in Northern California) currently required to add the surfaces to retain their license to operate a race meeting in 2008.

Apparently, there will be no common solution.

That became evident June 21 when the owners of Hollywood Park announced the Inglewood facility has decided to install Cushion Track, sold by Equestrian Surfaces of England. None of the other tracks has committed to a specific surface, though it is believed Del Mar is leaning toward Polytrack, which is in place at Turfway Park, is currently being installed at Keeneland (where the training track already has Polytrack), and soon will replace the dirt track at Woodbine in Canada. Del Mar, because it is built on property owned by the state, will be required to follow governmental bidding procedures.

Besides Cushion Track and Polytrack (a company owned in part by Keeneland), Michael Dickinson's Tapeta Footings and Stabilizer Racing Surfaces' StaLok have pitched their products to the CHRB and the tracks.

It should be emphasized that the synthetic surface mandate by the CHRB represents a giant step in the right direction, and the board should be commended for its courage in taking a dramatic step toward improved safety standards for jockeys and horses. The attrition rate for horses is simply too high; average starts per runner continue to trend downward, and the economic blow to owners of injured horses is significant. The resulting short fields at many tracks are an inhibitor to growth in pari-mutuel handle.

Worse yet, the image of a horse suffering a catastrophic injury, whether in a Triple Crown race or a maiden claiming event, drives fans away from the sport.

Some have cautioned the CHRB is moving too quickly; that the issue needs more study. This is an industry that gets lost in studies, blue-ribbon panels, and white papers; one that complains about do-nothing regulators.

Others have expressed concerns that synthetic surfaces may de-emphasize speed in the racing style of Thoroughbreds, or that the surfaces could eventually alter how horses are bred. Is that such a bad thing? After all, horses bred today make 30% fewer starts than those bred in 1980.


ASCOT'S EQUINE ROYALTY

Hats off to Ouija Board, as well as to her owner Lord Derby and trainer Ed Dunlop. What a remarkable four-year run the daughter of Cape Cross has had, winning eight of 17 starts while spanning the racing world.

Ouija Board's growing fan club has witnessed uplifting triumphs and excruciating defeats in Great Britain, Ireland, France, the United States, Japan, Hong Kong, and Dubai. But the 5-year-old's resumé didn't seem complete without a victory at her homeland's most-heralded race meeting, Royal Ascot. Her triumph there June 21 in the Prince of Wales's Stakes (Eng-I) filled that gap. I can't wait to see her make another run on Breeders' Cup day this November.

Simply put, Ouija Board and her connections represent the very best this sport has to offer.

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