Commentary:  Step Lively
Photo: File Photo
Dan LiebmanEditor-in-Chief
In 2007, at least one Thoroughbred flat race was run at 129 different racetracks in North America (another 24 ran steeplechase races only). Of those racetracks, nine now have a synthetic track surface.

This week, The Blood-Horse devotes an entire issue to the subject of synthetic surfaces. So, while only 7% of the 129 tracks in North America now have a non-dirt main track, the subject is deemed worthy of a complete examination by this publication.

Why?

Because, as the articles in this special edition prove, in just a few short years, the introduction of synthetic surfaces has impacted racing dramatically.

These stories document several things: synthetic surfaces, as of now, are not a magic wand; there are as many naysayers as believers; and perhaps most importantly at this juncture, there is no consensus about them within the industry.

That latter point should come as no surprise. There is no consensus about anything in this industry.

Reading the comments from breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians, track superintendents, handicappers, track management, etc., leaves little doubt that this is true regarding the synthetic surfaces being used at Del Mar, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Keeneland, Turfway Park, Golden Gate, Woodbine, Presque Isle, and Arlington Park.

Synthetic surfaces have not made track biases disappear. In some instances, they have only magnified them. There are synthetic surfaces that favor speed and those that don’t. There are synthetic surfaces that produce quick times—and not necessarily by good horses—and some that don’t. There are synthetic surfaces that seem to be totally different during morning training hours than they are during racing hours.

Just because it’s not dirt does not mean you just put down the surface and walk away. Nearly every synthetic racing surface that has been installed has experienced maintenance issues, some obviously more than others. It goes without saying the composition of the same synthetic surface in Del Mar, Calif., and Toronto, Ontario, Canada, must be different, and in turn will present different challenges for maintenance crews, horsemen, and the betting public.

The key question is simple: Are synthetic racing surfaces safer for the horses?

The manufacturers will say yes, but the jury is really still out.

Many of the veterinarians, owners, and trainers quoted in the articles in this issue, certainly representative of their profession, say they still see injuries in their horses that train and race over synthetic surfaces. Granted, no one should have expected injuries would cease to exist. These are, after all, still fragile animals.

Information on breakdowns is hard to discuss because in most jurisdictions, only those that happen during live races are reported, and everyone knows there are as many or more breakdowns during morning training hours.

What is known is this: synthetic surfaces are now a part of the racing landscape.

With that said, we now enter a perfect time to critically study and scrutinize the various synthetic surfaces, because there are no concrete plans for any to be installed at other racetracks in the immediate future.

In New York, there is uncertainty over the franchise and a lack of money. Magna chief Frank Stronach has repeatedly stated he is not in favor of synthetic surfaces for the tracks the company owns (other than in California, where the installation at Santa Anita was mandated by the state). Churchill Downs, home of the world’s most famous race, is not now a candidate. Most small tracks cannot afford the approximately $10 million it takes to make the change.

So, for the immediate future, the nine aforementioned tracks will remain those in North America that have taken the bold move of replacing their traditional dirt surfaces in an attempt to improve the game in a dramatic way. In the next few years, we will know more about the impact of their decision.

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