By Colin MacKenzie
Contrasting views on the future of synthetic tracks were expressed at the meeting of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities in Paris on Oct. 6, following the Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) meeting at Longchamp.
British opinion, expressed by Ian Renton, boss of Arena Leisure which owns three of Britain's all weather tracks -- Lingfield, Wolverhampton, and Southwell -- was upbeat about the prospects of group I races being held at these venues in the near future.
But Jamie Martin, senior vice president of Woodbine in Toronto, Canada, said that despite Santa Anita holding the Breeders' Cup World Championships on the new surface later this month the introduction of synthetic racetrack materials over the past two years had come to a halt in North America.
Martin said that all North American tracks with new artificial surfaces had witnessed increased field sizes -- Woodbine from 8.4 horses to 9.00 per race and Arlington from 7.5 to 8.3. In addition, the number of horses scratching when Woodbine turf races were switched because of weather-related track conditions fell from 4.6 when the transfer was to dirt to 2.5 for Polytrack. However he reported that no other tracks had come to the table to install synthetic tracks.
"The unfortunate situation with Santa Anita relates more to the problems in the construction phase as in the performance of the track itself," Martin said. "The uncertainty of performance of the current installations, along with the capital requirement of up to $10 million is causing racetrack operators to take a wait-and-see approach."
Martin suggested that expectations about the performance of synthetic surfaces had been pitched too high at the outset - even to the extent, he claimed, that some horsemen thought the new surface would make a lame horse sound.
"Synthetic surfaces have required less maintenance than dirt, resulting in a saving for racetrack management, though not to the extent as originally believed," Martin said. "Management felt that there would be no maintenance for the surface and that they could park the tractors. But while there is less maintenance than on dirt there is still a requirement for detailed surface maintenance. And while there were fewer injuries there were still catastrophic breakdowns."
He said that increased wagering on the new surfaces had tapered off. Larger field sizes had initially increased betting turnover but this had now leveled off because horsemen couldn't find the same edge they could on dirt.
He also said that trainers were slow to warm to synthetic surfaces. "While they generally support the use of synthetic surfaces for training purposes there is a divide when it comes to racing. In their minds, there are horses for dirt, horses for synthetic and horses for turf. There are horses that will not race in the Breeders' Cup due to a preference of the trainer for dirt over synthetic."
Renton was far more upbeat about the future of racing on synthetic surfaces in Britain and Ireland, having raced on these surfaces since 1989.
He believes the sea change came in 2001 when Lingfield's equitrack surface was replaced with polytrack. He said; "Racing on artificial surfaces has moved forward a long way since that first meeting on a second-generation surface.
"But if I had suggested seven years ago that Dundalk (in Ireland) and Great Leighs (in Essex, England) with their artificial surfaces would be competing with Longchamp and the Arc de Triomphe to attract the top rated horse in Europe (Duke of Marmalade) I think my sanity would have been questioned," Renton said. "Yet if we have moved this far in seven years what will the next seven years bring? I anticipate that not only will we see Group One horses running on artificial surfaces in Britain but we will also be staging group I races on these surfaces."
Renton was supported by Simon Bazalgette, Britain's new Jockey Club chief executive, who has Kempton's floodlit artificial surface among his portfolio of 14 racecourses.
Bazalgette said, "Jockey Club racecourses have already announced we will run a very valuable Kentucky Derby trial at Kempton in March next year. We most definitely have aspirations to run a series of Black Type races there, in addition to the ones we already stage. That may, one day, include a group I race."
Some 38% of flat racing in Britain this year is now held on artificial surfaces in a measure introduced to counter bad weather in winter when turf abandonments were damaging betting turnover.
Dundalk has introduced Ireland to racing on artifical surfaces in the past year while Great Leighs, exclusively a polytrack surface and launched earlier this year, is the first new racecourse to be opened in Britain for over 80 years.