Group Studies Synthetic Racing Surfaces for New York

A fledgling group of owners and breeders in New York has launched a new effort to study a variety of issues affecting the safety of Thoroughbred horses, including whether some of the state's racetracks should install alternative racing surfaces.

The new committee of Empire Racing Associates, which is trying to position itself to be involved as possible partners in a new franchise when the New York Racing Association franchise ends next year, wants to study if Thoroughbred tracks--with the exception of Saratoga--should consider using new materials such as Polytrack or Tapeta to help protect horses.

"We are committed to advocating for the finest racing and training surfaces in the world," Jeffrey Tucker, an owner and breeder who will head the new committee, said in a written statement released May 10. "With evolving innovations in racing surfaces and rail systems, we owe it to the horses, owners, trainers, and riders to provide the safest tracks possible on which to compete. Our commitment to the humane treatment of horses demands that their health and welfare be of the highest priority."

The group's equine welfare committee will look at other horse safety and welfare issues, such as Thoroughbred retirements.

"The horses are the stars of racing," said Robin Malatino, an owner and member of the committee. "All segments of the industry need to be involved in ensuring the future of these equine athletes after their racing days are over, and that includes the franchise holder. We at Empire Racing believe we can be part of the solution to make sure that these Thoroughbreds continue to lead a happy and fulfilling life after retirement from racing."

The group noted alternative track surfaces have been or are being installed soon at some tracks around the country, including Turfway Park, Keeneland, and Woodbine. "We will listen closely to horsemen, trainers, and jockeys to determine the feasibility of installing one of these surfaces at some New York tracks," a release said. "Given the durability and safety record of Turfway this past winter, we should focus initially on the Belmont training track and the Aqueduct inner track."

The committee's other members include Dennis Brida, the new executive vice president of racing operations and industry relations for Empire Racing; Richard Migliore, the Eclipse Award-winning jockey; Michael Dickinson, a trainer who built Tapeta Farm in Maryland; and Bill Heller, an industry journalist.

Brida said Empire Racing would form other committees to study issues. For starters, the group wanted to look at how horses are treated while they are racing and in retirement. "The feeling is to protect the horses," he said. The group will look, for instance, at the effectiveness of existing funds to help care for horses when they are done racing.

When asked how the new committee's efforts tie into Empire Racing's overall mission to obtain the franchise to operate Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga, Brida said: "It's all part of the package. There are two things we're doing. One is we're making a bid to win the franchise. And, as we're formulating the ideas and plan for racing, we also are trying to communicate to the horsemen and breeders who have supported us.

"We feel it's important to keep them up to date with the direction we're going, and to keep our ears open so there can be constant communication, something we don't think exists now with (NYRA)."