Commentary: The Right Move

By Bill Casner -

“No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”

No one understands this better than Richard Shapiro and his fellow California Horse Racing Board members in the wake of the problems with Cushion Track at Santa Anita.

Ignorance is rampant in this industry and a group of critics emerged in force to condemn the leadership of Shapiro, even calling for his resignation. They assert that the CHRB was too quick in recommending the mandate to convert from dirt to synthetic surfaces. I suppose the suicidal injury rate that California dirt tracks had experienced must have been acceptable to this group of naysayers and somehow they thought Shapiro and the board should be held accountable for the poor surface installation by the vendor.

The data overwhelmingly shows that the CHRB made the correct decision for the horses, the riders, and the industry. The reduction of catastrophic injuries at California tracks since the installation of synthetic surfaces has been reduced by more than 50%, mirroring the national average for reductions experienced by other tracks installing synthetic surfaces. Field size has increased significantly at all tracks with Golden Gate Fields averaging nearly two additional horses per race despite the heavy rains they are experiencing this winter. 

Perhaps one of the most telling statistics is that of 2-year-olds at this year’s Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita in comparison to 2006. This is the first year that virtually an entire group of 2-year-olds have trained and raced over synthetic tracks.

• In 2006, there were 8.3 entries per race with three races not filling. In 2007, there were 10.77 entries per race with one race not filling.

• In 2006, there were only four full fields (12 horses) out of 14 races (28%). In 2007, there were nine full fields out of 17 races (53%).

• In 2006, there were six races out of 14 that had seven or fewer horses in the field (43%). In 2007, there were only four races out of 17 that had a field of seven or fewer (reduced to 23%).

These statistics reflect what we as owners are seeing and what trainers are telling us—young horses are staying sounder and getting to the races on schedule.

But probably the most compelling reason that supports the decision of Shapiro and the CHRB to support the mandate is the increased safety that synthetic surfaces represent for our riders. This aspect seems to slip through the cracks when the pros and cons are discussed. Each percentage point drop in catastrophic breakdowns to our horses represents a drop in the opportunity for a rider to be seriously injured or killed.

I would submit that Shapiro, the CHRB, and the California tracks have done a tremendous service to our industry. They have stepped up and shown brave leadership in an industry that is, all too often, its own worst enemy. The unacceptable attrition rate of our horses cannot be sustained by owners, either financially or emotionally. In an industry that is struggling for new and younger fans, breakdowns instill a psychological blow to the fans’ racing experience, with many choosing never to return. And our riders, who put their lives on the line each time they are legged up on a horse, deserve to have the safest possible racing surface that can be provided in all kinds of weather.

My biggest fear is that tracks and racing jurisdictions that may have been considering the installation of an all-weather surface will now have a reason to retreat back into that black hole of tradition we have languished in for decades. When you do things the same way, you can expect the same results. It has been refreshing to see the accelerated acceptance of this new surface technology that shows so much promise for the safety of our horses and riders. We can hope the mistakes that were made in the installation will serve to advance the science and increase future diligence. Let us hope there will be other strong and visionary leaders, whether they are jurisdictional boards or CEOs, like Shapiro and the CHRB, that are willing to do the right thing for the industry.

If not, it will be our horses, our riders, and each and every one of us that who ultimately pay the catastrophic price.

Bill Casner is the co-owner of WinStar Farm near Versailles, Ky., and chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.