When it comes to issues affecting California racing, nothing supersedes track surfaces. While panelists at the Thoroughbred Owners of California summit meeting Feb. 13 at Santa Anita first spoke about the failing economic model of the state’s satellite wagering system and whether racetracks should reduce their number of dates, it was the session on racetrack surfaces that everyone was waiting to hear.
Madeline Auerbach, vice chair of the TOC and the moderator of the track surfaces panel, knew she had a hot topic on her hands. She began by asking the audience of more than 100 owners, trainers and others for a civil and respectful discussion.
“I have never seen an issue that has brought more emotion from the various sides,” Auerbach said. “We should be respectful of one another.”
The discussion was designed to bring information to TOC members. The track surfaces panel included Dr. Lucy Anthenill and Dr. Francisco Uzal of the California Animal Health & Food Safety Lab of the University of California-Davis; Dr. Rick Arthur, the California Horse Racing Board's equine medical director; Craig Fravel, executive vice president at Del Mar; trainers John Sadler and John Shirreffs; and professional handicapper Toby Turrell.
Arthur showed a chart that he said “causes all the controversy in the racing industry.” It indicated that the fatality rates on dirt surfaces at major California tracks was 3.05 per 1,000 starts and after the switch to synthetic surfaces has dropped to 1.93 per 1,000 starts. Arthur said that this translates to a reduction of 60 to 70 racing fatalities.
Arthur, Uzal and Anthenill pointed out that 90-95% of fatalities had pre-existing stress fractures.
“Are we missing these pre-existing conditions or ignoring them?” asked Arthur.
Much of the discussion centered on the different types of injuries that are showing up on synthetic tracks; some said that the number of injuries don’t seem to be decreasing during training.
Shirreffs, the trainer of Zenyatta, is not a fan of synthetic tracks. He said that horses have to adjust the length of their stride on a synthetic surface.
“You used to see that big mover,” Shirreffs said. “You don’t see that anymore.”
He said that injuries are shifting from older horses to younger horses and that trainers can no longer find early indications of injuries.
“I liken it to driving a car without any gauges,” he said. “You can’t pick up those early warning signs.”
Sadler, who was recently elected president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, said that the organization polled trainers and found that 70% want Santa Anita to replace its synthetic surface with a dirt track.
“We’re in the trenches working with these horses every day,” said Sadler. “We’d like to see some change in the surface here.”
Fravel showed statistics that supported the idea that synthetic surfaces are safer for horses and that they have helped increase field size. He said that numbers of horses that did not finish races have decreased from 1.55% to 0.58% at Del Mar. Del Mar and Equibase examined those numbers to see how many horses did not return to the races within six months. They found that more horses did not return from failing to finish on dirt than on synthetic surfaces.
Fravel also addressed handicappers’ concerns that synthetic tracks are more difficult to handicap. He noted that the percentage of winning favorites initially declined on synthetic surfaces but is improving “to more traditional territory.” Number of lengths from first horse to last in races has also tightened up.
“Why do handicappers hate us?” Fravel asked. “We’ve had closer races. If the races are going to be that much tighter, they are going to be harder to handicap. It makes it harder to eliminate horses.”
Trainer Darrell Vienna said that he felt some of the reduction of fatalities during racing has been because of more stringent pre-race exam procedures.
“I don’t think anyone is wedded to synthetics if they are less safe than dirt,” said Fravel. “Let’s find the safest thing and do it.”
Jerry Moss, owner of Zenyatta, said that horses raised on grass and dirt have to adjust to synthetic surfaces, putting stresses on the animals.
“I think if Santa Anita has a dirt track, I think that’s a good start,” said Moss. “Let’s make sure it’s a good track. I wish we could get over this subject. It’s a very divisive one.”
On one subject, however, the crowd was in agreement—cheering on Zenyatta against Rachel Alexandra. They gave a tremendous response to Fravel, who ended the meeting by saying to Moss: “I hope you go back to Oaklawn Park and kick some ass.”