Synthetic Surfaces: Special Report

Synthetic Surfaces: Special Report
Photo: Benoit
Horses break from the gate on the Polytrack at Del Mar

Perhaps no other sport is as bound to tradition as racing Thoroughbreds.From the sheer length of its history, to the grand old venues in which it takes place, to the top-hatted and red-suited bugler calling the horses to post, racing loves its time-honored habits. Normally, it embraces radical changes like a child takes to brussels sprouts.
Sure, there’s a safety vest or better helmet for jockeys added here; new exotic wagers and simulcasting and bigger saddlecloth numbers there. But as for the fundamentals of how races are run, change usually arrives on the wings of a crawling glacier…pre-global warming.

It is with great difficulty,then, in this sea of tradition,to fathom the scope and rapidity of the installation of artificial, or synthetic, racing surfaces. In the past two years, nine racetracks in North America have laid down some combination of rubber, wax, sand, jelly cable, and other ingredients that would seem more apt to be headed for a recycling center than a racetrack. It is a pace that bewilders even the staunchest backers of the new surfaces.

As necessity is the mother of invention, one readily understands the genesis of this movement. Cold-weather locations such as Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky and Woodbine, near Toronto, struggled mightily, and often unsuccessfully, to keep their dirt tracks thawed and fit for winter racing, losing numerous racing dates to inclement weather, and horses to injury.

Other plants, such as Arlington Park near Chicago, and Del Mar, outside San Diego, were hit with concussive negative publicity from local media for excessive catastrophic breakdowns and horse deaths in 2006. Lexington’s Keeneland found its speed-favoring, rail-biased racing strip to be far below its lofty standard of “racing as it was meant to be” during its two boutique meetings each year.

Each of the above tracks, in full search mode, was willing to move forward based on the success of “all-weather” synthetic tracks in Europe. But the blockbuster came out of California, whose racing board decided to mandate that each of the state’s major racetracks switch to synthetics or lose their dates. This pushed the needle past “surprise” to “astonishment,” considering the limited track record of the new surfaces and the lack of data on a host of topics, ranging from how to maintain the surfaces, to their impact on the very style of racing, crucial to a state famous for its fast strips and speedy performers.

Turfway Park became the first track in North America to race over a synthetic surface two years ago, while Golden Gate Fields is currently running its initial meet over one.

Already, certain advantages have proven out. New drainage systems that allow water to drain vertically down through the material have kept venues open for normal training and race days, eliminating sloppy conditions and sealed tracks. When it does rain, and races come off the turf, those horses are able to make the transition to synthetic racing without needing to be scratched, increasing field sizes and improving handle.

But somewhere along the line, whether it came from“the glass is nearly full” manufacturers (Polytrack, Tapeta Footings, and CushionTrack surfaces have been installed in North America) or from overly-optimistic track operators, horsemen were led to believe that synthetic surfaces could cure the halt and lame, and let the blind see.

The idea got out that these surfaces would eliminate catastrophic breakdowns, be the end of injuries to horses, and mark the beginning of no-maintenance-required facilities.

These beliefs, belied by the past two years’ experience, have caused some hard feelings from horsemen and backpedaling from purveyors.

“The expectations at the beginning were completely unreasonable,” noted David Willmot, chairman and CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group, which operates theToronto-area track. “Everybody wanted to believe it, and no question the purveyors of synthetic surfaces—I won’t say they oversold or misrepresented—but they were certainly painting a rosy picture.Even though expectations were too high,it’s still better than what we had.”

Some venues have had relatively smooth skating with their artificial surfaces;others have struggled with composition, maintenance, and the vagaries of climate swings from meet to meet and even from morning to afternoon. What is apparent in speaking to operators and horsemen alike is that synthetic surfaces are still very much a work in progress. From farriers to track superintendents to trainers and jockeys, a learning curve is under way. Thankfully, cooperation and information sharing are prevalent, and even where the growing pains have been most egregious, many believe that with trial and error will come substantial improvement, hopefully both short- and long-term.

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