The Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission has embarked on a study to determine whether synthetic-surface racing has an impact on horses’ bronchial systems.
Though synthetic surfaces have been in use for racing in the United States for about two years, the Pennsylvania study is believed to be the first performed by a state regulatory agency, or at least the first to be made public. It involves horses at Penn National Race Course, which has a dirt surface, and Presque Isle Downs, the first racetrack to install a Tapeta Footings surface.
Dr. Jerry Pack, chief veterinarian for the PHRC, said Sept. 15 bronchial tests are being performed on 20 Penn National-based horses, 10 of which shipped to Presque Isle, the new track near Erie, Pa. Tests will be done to see how dirt and the synthetic surface—primarily sand and fibers—impact horses’ breathing.
The commission also plans to run tests using a breathing apparatus on horses and study air quality in barns at the tracks.
“There are a lot of firsts happening here,” PHRC executive director Ben Nolt said. “To have this Tapeta surface here is a neat opportunity. As executive director, I’ve yet to have one call about anything negative (with the surface), but we do want to check the horses’ lungs just to see.”
Pack said the surface, which debuted for racing Sept. 1, has been “very forgiving” to horses. “The horses are coming back good, and they look great coming back,” he said.
Still, officials want to play it safe when it comes to horses’ lungs.
“If the surface reduces breakdowns, that’s tremendous, but if we expose the whole horse population to potential lung problems, that’s not,” Pack said. “So far, vets have scoped horses and found nothing, so we’re hoping for the best.”
Results of the study could be available in 30-45 days, Pack said.
Tapeta was invented by trainer Michael Dickinson, who was on hand at Presque Isle Sept. 15 for the track’s inaugural $400,000 Presque Isle Masters Stakes. Dickinson earlier in the day produced a report from 2006 on exposure of horses and riders to “respirable” fibers, respirable dust, total dust, and free silica at Dickinson’s Tapeta Farm in Maryland.
The report, conducted by Atlantic Environmental Inc. on behalf of Dickinson, showed no “potentially harmful exposures” on Tapeta, while respirable dust samples taken on an unidentified dirt track in the Mid-Atlantic region did “indicate a risk” of respirable dust exposure to horses and riders.
Dickinson said he’s pleased with the Presque Isle surface thus far. After morning workouts Sept. 15, he walked the surface and pointed to distinct hoof prints—right down to the “frog”—that went about an inch deep.
“We like horses’ front feet to go in an inch but no more than two inches,” he said. “If they’re not going in an inch, it’s too hard. We need the front-end to be forgiving, but it’s even more important to cater to the rear end. There is more pressure exerted on the hind end--a horse has to have stability.”
When asked about undocumented reports that horses racing on synthetic surfaces are having more hind-end injuries, Dickinson said: “The tensile strength of the fibers used in Tapeta was specifically designed and selected for stability for a horse’s hind end.”
Through 12 nights of racing at Presque Isle, there was one catastrophic breakdown; several other horses were pulled up with various injuries. No riders were hurt.
Veterinarians and officials at other tracks with synthetic surfaces noted some breakdowns could be the result of trainers racing horses in the hope the surfaces alleviate soreness. Dickinson acknowledged that could be an issue.
“We have to be careful we don’t become a magnet for every sore horse on the East Coast,” he said. “There might be an instance where a horse had four or five tough races and understandably became sore racing on dirt. As a result, an obvious temptation is for the trainer to say to himself, ‘We can’t get another dirt race out of him, but we can we get another race out of him on a synthetic surface?’
“We’ve seen that. Horses have arrived sore, and trainers have remarked that after two weeks, the horses are moving much better. However, certain injuries can only be cured by surgery or rest.”
Most trainers who typically race their horses on dirt told The Blood-Horse they like the Tapeta surface. The results are typical of any racetrack: One trainer said his horses “glide” over the surface, and he plans to bring a larger string to Presque Isle next year; another trainer said he still prefers dirt racing to synthetic-surface racing.
Jockey Corey Lanerie, who is based at Presque Isle, said he had some trouble adjusting at first but believes “it’s about getting the right horse.” On Sept. 15, Lanerie rode Indian Chant to victory in the $175,000 Karl Boyes Memorial Northwestern Pa. Stakes for owner Maggi Moss and trainer Tom Amoss.
“It’s a fair surface,” Lanerie said. “It seems like the rail has been dead, but I can’t really feel that. I love the benefits of it.”
The results of the Sept. 15 stakes indicated horses with a race or workouts on Tapeta have an edge. Indian Chant and Santana Strings, first and second in Boyes Memorial, had finished one-two in a Sept. 1 Presque Isle allowance race. In the $175,000 Presque Isle Mile, Independent George and Bestowed finished first and second, respectively; both train on Tapeta in Maryland.
Miss Macy Sue, winner of the Masters Stakes, made her Tapeta debut but had worked very well on Polytrack at Arlington Park. The second-place finisher, Wild Gams, had two works at Presque Isle.