Experts from all avenues of the racing industry presented statistics and opinions on synthetic surfaces before a standing-room-only crowd during a six-hour special meeting called by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) Feb. 20. While some horsemen, including trainers Bob Baffert and John Shirreffs, spoke out against the surfaces, the majority of speakers supported the switch away from dirt.
Santa Anita’s recent difficulties with its Cushion Track surface have focused attention on the CHRB mandate for major California tracks to install synthetic surface by 2008. During the panel of racetrack operators, Santa Anita president Ron Charles said that following completion of the current meeting, the track will replace its surface, though the choice of which synthetic surface has not been made.
“No one is aware more than I am that we will have the Breeders’ Cup here two years in a row,” said Charles. “We have got to get it right. This surface that’s out there right now will only last us through the end of this meet.”
Santa Anita’s current surface, which for the most part has received positive reviews, is a mixture of the old Cushion Track surface and new material added by Pro-Ride Australia.
“We don’t really see this as a long-term plan,” Charles said following the meeting. “We will probably take it out, though the drainage system will remain. We will be going out and doing a lot more due diligence. Hopefully, we will have a decision by the end of the meet.”
Charles could not speculate on when that replacement would occur because of Santa Anita’s role as an auxiliary training center during the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting.
His comments came at the end of a long meeting of nine panels—jockeys, trainers, veterinarians, synthetic track manufacturers and scientists, track superintendents, racing secretaries, horse owners, track operators, and horseplayers. More than 50 people spoke at the meeting, with one notable absence—Paul Harper of Cushion Track. CHRB chairman Richard Shapiro said that he received an e-mail from Harper, who was a “last-minute scratch.”
Perhaps the most contentious panel came from the trainers, with many supporting the new surfaces and others opposed to it. The trainers primarily discussed whether synthetic surfaces have decreased horse injuries.
“I think we’re in a crisis right now,” said Baffert, who said he initially supported the synthetic surfaces. “I think these vendors who put these tracks in sold us a bill of goods that didn’t do what they’re supposed to. I think these surfaces disrespect the ability of a horse and they disrespect the contest of horse racing, where the best horse is supposed to win.”
Richard Mandella, Eoin Harty, Dave Hofmans, Doug O’Neill, Ron Ellis, and Barry Abrams were among those supporting synthetic surfaces, saying they are seeing fewer injuries. Hofmans maintained that grade I sprinter Greg’s Gold would not be racing without the surfaces.
“The natural resources in our area make it difficult for us to get the sandy loam we need to make a good racetrack,” said Mandella, who has horses stabled at both Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. “Tracks little by little got worse and worse, and the injury rate showed it. Some terrible mistakes have been made with these synthetic tracks. I think that Cushion Track did a terrible job and left us high and dry. I think the man from Australia came and worked a miracle here.”
Ellis pointed out that many Eastern-based stables have sent horses to California because of the synthetic surfaces. Shirreffs, who stables at Hollywood, said that he sees more hind-end injuries, hoof bruises, and gravels.
“It’s like being in quicksand,” Shirreffs said. “You don’t know how the track’s playing. There are hard spots and soft spots; it’s cuppy and loose.”
Shirreffs has been particularly concerned with the incidence of bleeding in young horses. Hofmans said that while he has had bleeders, he hasn’t seen the debris in the trachea that he saw from a dirt surface.
The veterinarian panel discussed many of the injury questions. Dr. Sue Stover of the University of California at Davis and Dr. Diane Isbell, who conducts pre-race exams in Northern California, noted that injury rates on synthetic surfaces often dropped when horses ran without toe grabs behind. Dr. Isbell said that some trainers have had success training their horses without shoes and urged the CHRB to allow horses to race barefoot.
“The incidence of soft-tissue injury went way down,” reported Dr. Joe Dowd, who practices primarily at Hollywood. “At one point we certainly saw a spate of right hind condylar fractures, which was quite odd, but it was a short window of time. They made some changes in the track, and we don’t see those anymore.”
Dowd added that he had not seen an increase in the incidence of bleeding, while Dr. Jeff Blea said that his practice has experienced an increase in bleeders. Both Dowd and Blea theorized that it might be caused by the different way a horse moves on a synthetic surface, that it could be “a function of mechanics and locomotion,” Blea said.
Many of the panelists agreed that synthetic tracks need good maintenance programs and that the components in the surfaces will degrade over time, requiring a re-application of materials.
“Any of the products will break down,” said Royce Hanamaikai of Pro-Ride. Hanamaikai noted that track superintendents analyze traditional dirt tracks and add to them because of degradation.
Dennis Moore, Hollywood’s track superintendent, said that he plans to add wax, fiber, and rubber to the surface before the meet begins in late April. He said that they have monitored how often materials will need to be added and that currently it appears necessary about every seven months.
Garrett Gomez, David Flores, and former rider Gary Stevens on the jockey panel all praised the synthetic surfaces, despite the glitches.
“My body has felt tremendously better,” said Gomez. “They really help with the wear and tear on our bodies.”
Stevens said that the majority of his 14 knee surgeries during his career occurred due to jarring on hard, sealed, or inconsistent dirt tracks.
Joe Harper of Del Mar and Charles both emphasized that their decisions to put in synthetic surfaces were based on safety to riders and horses. Earlier in the day, Baffert had said that horses like the legendary Cigar would no longer come to California because of the synthetic surfaces.
“If a horse like Cigar won’t come out, I’ll take that for a 70% reduction in fatalities,” Harper said.