With the announcement that Del Mar plans to switch from Polytrack back to a dirt main track in 2015, the grand experiment with synthetic racing surfaces in Southern California is likely coming to an end.
It was an expensive venture, at an estimated cost statewide of more than $40 million to install following the California Horse Racing Board's mandate that all major Thoroughbred tracks in the state convert from dirt by the end of 2007. Del Mar, which installed Polytrack for its summer 2007 meet, has the last remaining synthetic track in the region.
Once it's gone, the Tapeta Footings surface at Golden Gate Fields in the San Francisco Bay Area will be the last remaining synthetic track in the state.
Santa Anita Park abandoned its Pro-Ride track to return to dirt in 2010. That Pro-Ride surface replaced the original Cushion Track that was installed initially but failed to perform adequately under the extreme divergence of temperatures in the San Gabriel Valley.
Hollywood Park and its Cushion Track are history, with the track closing in December. The other Southern California racing venues at Los Alamitos and Fairplex Park compete on dirt.
Joe Harper, president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, cited that fact as one of the reasons Del Mar plans to return to dirt.
"With all the other tracks in Southern California (racing on) dirt, it's time," Harper was quoted as saying by the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Plus, our track is falling apart. They said the life of Polytrack was seven years, and guess what, we're seeing it.
"The asphalt (foundation) is disintegrating because of the petroleum base in the wax. We had no other choice. This is the safest decision we could make."
Harper could not be reached for further comment. But Dr. Mick Peterson, executive director of the Racing Surface Testing Laboratory, said he was unfamiliar with a track foundation's disintegration as described by Harper.
"I don't understand it all. I've never seen it before," said Peterson, widely considered to be the foremost authority on track surfaces, by phone from Maine Feb. 19. He said if the asphalt base was breaking down, "the wax would actually help seal" the problem areas.
Del Mar is in the process of locating the dirt that will be needed for its one-mile surface. Before moving forward, the DMTC will need the approval of the California Coastal Commission, but that is not expected to be a major hurdle.
The track is in the process of installing a wider turf course that will be ready in time for the summer meet that runs July 17 to Sept. 3. The track will also host a fall meet this year from Nov. 7-30, meaning the earliest it could begin the main track replacement is in December.
Switching back to dirt comes after a season in which Del Mar experienced just one racing fatality on the Polytrack and one on turf. Two other horses were euthanized after breaking down during morning workouts.
Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director, said the synthetic track era was not the "panacea" officials hoped it would be. He noted that in spite of the unpopularity of synthetics with many horsemen and members of the betting public, it did succeed in lowering the equine fatality rate on tracks that employed them, including Del Mar.
In 2006, the seaside track had 14 horses die during training or racing accidents.
"I think people have forgotten the pressure Del Mar and the CHRB were under at the time," Arthur said. "We were having more than 300 fatalities a year in California, a dramatic increase over preceding years. It was an expensive experiment but we also know a lot more about racetracks now than we ever did."
The CHRB learned that synthetic tracks could be terribly inconsistent and difficult to maintain from morning workouts to afternoon racing, and that heavy usage wore down the materials quickly, requiring more monitoring and attention than a dirt track, and often, more watering to get the consistency right.
More importantly, Arthur said, officials learned that track surface is just one of many factors contributing to equine safety. Better pre-race veterinarian exams, new rules voiding claims of unsound horses, better use of necropsy reports, and more stringent drug-testing policies are among other factors.
It has paid off, he noted, with a 24% reduction in equine fatalities for all breeds statewide during the 2012-13 fiscal year, according to the CHRB's annual year-end report, the lowest total in more than two decades. Of the 209 horses in total to die within racetrack enclosures during the period, 146 were from racing or training breakdowns.
Arthur said total fatalities for Thoroughbreds in 2012-13 were the lowest they had been since 1991.