Synthetic surfaces will be mandatory at major Thoroughbred race tracks in California by the end of next year under a regulatory amendment given final approval by the state's Horse Racing Board on May 25.
The change, which requires the installation of an artificial polymer type surface by Jan. 1, 2008, pertains to any racing association seeking a license "that operates four weeks of continuous Thoroughbred racing in a calendar year."
Polymer-based surfaces are considered safer for horses than traditional dirt tracks because of their consistent composition. Statistics from Turfway Park after its initial year with Polytrack showed a drastic decrease in on-track injuries and fatal breakdowns. Synthetic track has been in use in England for several years and Keeneland and Woodbine racetracks are planning to install artificial surfaces as well. California is the first state to mandate that its major Thoroughbred tracks convert. Cost for each new racing surface is estimated at between $6 million and $9 million.
The board action followed several months of discussions and research into the merits of synthetic surfaces, including presentations to the industry by representatives of four different polymer-based surfaces: Polytrack, Tapeta, Cushion Surface, and StaLok. All four surfaces include a mixture of fibers and sand coated with wax, which is installed over a vertical drainage system that allows for easy absorption under all weather conditions. The commission approved the change in regulations by a 4-0 vote with Jerry Moss abstaining due to his concern that tracks should select the same brand of synthetic track.
The racing commissioners had approved the regulatory amendment for public notice in February, and the board received comments both in favor and opposed to the proposal.
But Chairman Richard Shapiro said the board needed to deal with the unacceptable problem of racehorse deaths and injuries, and the mandate for synthetic surfaces is part of the solution.
"While it is not just racing surfaces causing the problem, it certainly is a contributing factor," said Shapiro. "I think it is clear, given Turfway Park's experience, that California needs to move forward and continue our progress."
Shapiro said earlier that he expected Del Mar and Golden Gate Fields to be the first tracks to adopt a synthetic racing surface. Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows are also affected. None, so far, have expressed a preference in artificial surface.
After the meeting, commissioner John Harris, acknowledged that "18 months is a pretty aggressive time frame" to have all five tracks completed. He said the board would retain the flexibility to "use its rational judgement" to reach its goal.
"We realize that a lot of different factors enter into this," Harris said. "At the same time we don't want to give the impression that the time frame is immaterial."
Legislation approved by the California Senate May 11 that would have made the artificial track mandate part of state law should no longer be necessary with the CHRB's action and is expected to be dropped, Harris said.
The CHRB decision drew the backing of groups representing all aspects of racing – California trainers and owners, the Jockeys' Guild and track operators.
Craig Fravel, executive vice president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, referred to the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and the injury to Barbaro.
"I don't want to pretend that the injury would not have happened if there had been Polytrack (at Pimlico), but racing can no longer get along with saying that's all part of horse racing," he said. "I think our actions in California will show the way for a lot of people around the country."