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Synthetic Tracks: New Zealand Knows Best.

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Keeneland reluctantly will be digging the dirt again

 
 
 
Keeneland_Spring_Opening_Horse_Racing-07
Thoroughbreds break from the starting game in the first horse race of opening day at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., on April 4; the track will replace its synthetic surface with dirt before its fall meet. (Garry Jones/Associated Press)

When the Blue Grass Stakes is run at Keeneland on Saturday, it likely won’t produce the next Kentucky Derby winner. Though it was once the most important 3-year-old prep race, it became irrelevant after Keeneland replaced its dirt track with a synthetic surface. None of the seven horses who captured the Blue Grass on Polytrack proceeded to win on Churchill Downs’ dirt; most ran dismally.

The decline of Keeneland’s signature race was only one of the reasons that it announced last week that it will remove the Polytrack and install a dirt surface for its fall meeting. Del Mar made a similar decision last month, and Santa Anita got rid of its synthetic track in 2010. But the decision by Keeneland, a power in the thoroughbred industry, signaled that the movement to synthetic surfaces is finished in the U.S.

The changeover to synthetics was triggered by a series of events in 2006. Barbaro’s fatal breakdown in the Preakness triggered nationwide discussions about horse safety. That summer, Arlington Park and Del Mar experienced epidemics of breakdowns that generated more bad publicity for the sport. Arlington and all of the major California tracks would soon replace their dirt surfaces. Keeneland not only installed Polytrack in the fall of 2006 but became a partner of the company that manufactured it.The premise that racing surfaces were principally responsible for breakdowns was a simplistic view of a complex problem. Medication policies, trainers’ methods and breeders’ decisions have all contributed to the fragility of contemporary American thoroughbreds, but these factors are hard to fix. The installation of the new surfaces — which were mostly made of rubber, fiber, sand and wax — was a way to demonstrate that the sport was addressing the safety issue.

When regulators and track executives discussed synthetic tracks they focused almost exclusively on safety. They didn’t ask how the new surfaces would affect the sport of racing. Would it be changed? In 2006, most people assumed that synthetic surfaces would resemble dirt, except that they would be safer and easier to maintain.

 

The various synthetic tracks — Polytrack, Tapeta, Cushion Track, Pro-Ride — fulfilled their promise about horse fatalities. A study by the Jockey Club showed that the catastrophic injury rate on synthetics was significantly lower than on dirt. However, many trainers and veterinarians maintain that horses are more susceptible to hind-end and soft-tissue injuries on synthetics, so the safety argument wasn’t quite as clear-cut as the fatality numbers suggest.

But the biggest surprise about the new surfaces was the answer to the question that hadn’t been asked in 2006: What would the racing be like?

Fans quickly observed that it bore little resemblance to dirt. While American breeders have always emphasized speed and handicappers have always understood the importance of early speed, synthetic tracks didn’t favor it. (When Polytrack made its debut at Keeneland, bettors got a quick education when only one of the first 48 races was won by a front-runner.) Horses with good dirt form often didn’t reproduce it on the new surfaces; turf specialists adapted better to synthetic tracks. When the Breeders’ Cup held its championship events on Santa Anita’s Cushion Track in both 2008 and 2009, every race was won by a turf or synthetic-track specialist; dirt runners all failed, including the country’s best horse, Curlin.

Keeneland’s two short meetings have traditionally been a showcase for the nation’s best thoroughbreds. Stakes such as the Blue Grass, Ashland, Spinster, Alcibiades and Breeders’ Futurity drew top horses from all over the country; the roster of their winners is filled with champions — prior to 2006. Now the country’s good dirt runners rarely show up. Not one serious Kentucky Derby hopeful is in the Blue Grass. The probable favorite, Bobby’s Kitten, is strictly a grass runner, and most of the other entrants are unworthy of a Grades I stakes.

Yet Keeneland is abandoning its synthetic surface with great reluctance — as is Del Mar. Keeneland President Bill Thomason has said he hoped that Polytrack would become so accepted that “everybody would have it.” Del Mar President Joe Harper has been a staunch supporter of synthetic surfaces, but with the rest of southern California now racing on dirt, he acknowledged, “We can’t be the only one.”

 

In retrospect, the push for synthetic surfaces in 2006 was ill-considered, hasty and a bit arrogant. A small number of the sport’s leaders were saying, in essence, “We are going to change the fundamental nature of horse racing in America,, and we want everyone to fall in line with us.” Upon seeing what the future would look like, too many people — the sport’s customers, especially — wanted no part of it.

 

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The History and Future of Synthetic Tracks

April 6, 2019

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After a 23rd horse died at Santa Anita Park on March 31, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals urged horse racing officials to replace all racetracks in California to “the known-safest racing surface—a synthetic track.”

Horse racing enthusiasts scratched their heads in confusion. Hadn’t Del Mar, Keeneland and Santa Anita tried synthetic surfaces and then switched back? Which is better, dirt or man-made tracks?

That’s a debate that has been going on for more than 50 years. The history of synthetic tracks has been one of hope and unfulfilled promises – with a bit of politics thrown in.

What Are Synthetic Tracks?

A synthetic track is any track that is made of man-made materials. It holds better in wet conditions and is an all-weather surface. Most synthetic tracks are made of a blend of polypropylene, synthetic fibers, recycled rubber and sand, all coated in wax. It’s in place in about 35 racetracks worldwide.

The first synthetic track, Tartan, was installed at various harness racing venues in the 1960s, but the surface failed to catch on with trainers, and they were replaced. The same thing happened in the 1970s when Calder Race Track tried Saf-T-Turf; track management covered it with sand only four months later after trainers complained that it made their horses sore.

Synthetic tracks started to become serious alternatives in the 2000s when Polytrack became available. It featured a better cushioned and weather-resistant surface, and tracks began adopting it. Keeneland installed it on its training track in 2004, and then Turfway Park used it on its main track a year later.

This shift was occurring while several high-profile fatalities were being investigated. Del Mar saw 15 fatalities at its track in 2006; Arlington Park in Chicago had 22 horses die that same year.

In 2006, the surface got a major endorsement when the California Horse Racing Board ordered all major Thoroughbred tracks in the state to install synthetic surfaces by Jan. 1, 2008. Keeneland followed suit in late 2006 with its own Polytrack surface. At its peak in popularity, synthetic surfaces were on nine tracks in North America.

The tracks proved to be safer than dirt or turf tracks; a study by the Jockey Club in 2014 showed that on all-weather tracks, the death rate from injuries per 1,000 starts was only 1.18, compared to 1.22 for turf and 1.78 on dirt tracks. After Turfway installed a synthetic surface in 2005, their fatality rate dropped 85%. And once the California tracks installed the new surfaces, they saw a 37% drop in fatalities.

Studies showed further proof of synthetic surfaces’ superiority. Dr. Sue Stover of the University of California-Davis found that the force of the hoof on synthetic surfaces was more than half of what it was on dirt. When talking about a 1,000 pound animal, that’s a big difference.

The Tide Turns

But there were problems with the synthetic surfaces. Temperature changes affected the surfaces greatly – hot weather made the surface sticky and difficult to run in, and the tracks had to be watered to keep the temperatures down. Many tracks had problems with maintenance; Santa Anita replaced its Cushion surface with Pro-Ride after heavy rains caused drainage problems. The track had to close for a week while repairs were made.

And the tracks had a short life span; The waxes and polymer tended to break down over time, causing costly replacement of the materials. Del Mar had to replace its foundation after only seven seasons.

Then it became a money issue. Handicappers, the life blood of a race track, complained that the synthetic surfaces didn’t provide a uniform surface on which to judge a horse’s past performances. Trainers were also reporting odd, soft-tissue injuries with the horses.

However, Dr. Stover said there was no way to prove this, since trainers were not mandated to report such injuries. “There is weak evidence and considerable anecdotal evidence that soft-tissue and hind end injuries are more common on synthetic surfaces than dirt surfaces,” she said.

Jess Jackson, owner of the famed filly Rachel Alexandra, refused to run her in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup, calling Santa Anita’s surface “plastic.” In the two years the Breeders’ Cup was held at Santa Anita’s synthetic track, not one horse whose last race had been on dirt won a race.

The CHRB reversed their mandate in 2008, giving tracks permission to switch back to dirt if that was their wish. Santa Anita announced its return to dirt in 2010 after the new Pro-Ride surface had drainage problems as well. The next year, the fatality rate jumped to 2.94 per 1,000 starts, compared with .59 per 1,000 in 2010.

In 2014, Keeneland and Del Mar announced they were replacing their Polytrack surfaces with dirt. Interestingly, both tracks were announced as Breeders’ Cup host sites after the announcement.

So is the dirt the cause of Santa Anita’s epidemic of fatalities? Not so fast, Dr. Stover warns. “Injuries are the result of multiple factors. Track surface is an important factor, but there are other key factors that play a role, including training history (exercise intensity) and pre-existing bone abnormalities,” she said. “The fatalities at Santa Anita need a full investigation before jumping to the conclusion that the racetrack was a contributor to the fatalities.”

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The surprising thing to me is that they've scheduled 6 meetings on the Cambridge one before it is even complete let alone tested in NZ winter conditions. One fatality and they'll have the animal welfare activists all over them.

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Some information on synthetic track maintenance.  It appears that the Riccarton track will have higher maintenance costs that the Cambridge one due to the extremes in temperatures experienced in Canterbury.  The track has to be prepared daily relative to the ambient temperature.  Will be interesting when you have a Norwester with a Southerly change!

tdn191209.pdf

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C'mon guys give the decision makers a break , i'm sure they have researched this this thoroughly and sought expert opinion on all aspects of these tracks . They have never been known to rush head long into these big money decisions without all available information and a full and frank discussion and consultation process with all sectors off the industry . Lay off them .

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It reads like a disaster waiting to happen, but with the leadership we have in place in NZ racing you'd have to be very confident that things will go very ...oh no wait a minute.

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18 minutes ago, Huey said:

It reads like a disaster waiting to happen, but with the leadership we have in place in NZ racing you'd have to be very confident that things will go very ...oh no wait a minute.

You wouldn't want to go too deep with your tractor grubber....

Woops you need specially designed equipment to maintain the tracks.

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1 hour ago, Freda said:

I understand there is a delegation from Ricc heading to Cambridge next week for a look.

Is RITA or Cambridge Jockey Club paying?  Airfares will be close to $600 return - each person.

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They'll come back after having had some lunch there with some old mates saying how great it is and how good it will be for NZ racing etc.

Why are they going to a track that is incomplete, what is the point? Shouldn't they be going somewhere or Zoom a delegation that currently has a track to really find out what users thoughts are?

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18 minutes ago, Freda said:

Haha .....good one.

Freda, would you be able to tell us how many horses are in training at Riccarton? Approximately will do. And do you know how many actual trainers are based there? What I'm getting to is this-if/when a 'synthetic' track is built there, how many horses will use it. Cambridge they're saying 1000 a month at present. And finally, do you think in your environment that there are trainers or younger people who may take up training at Riccarton or move there be cause of a synthetic track being contructed there?

Thanks

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Asked the course manager where the silica sand might come from.  He will let me know when he has more information.

Horses in training ?  a guess -  I'd reckon 400-odd.  Some of course come from private stables.

Trainers?  again, off the top of my head...16 based here,  and 5 or 6 not based here.  But if I bothered to look it all up in the last NZTR monthly mag, I may be a tad more accurate.

I have no knowledge of any trainers [ yet ] that may be attracted by a synthetic.  Early days of course, not done yet.

As for younger trainers generally,  if under-50 counts as 'young'  we have Nicky Lloyd, Andrew Carston, Champion/Murphy, Matt Pitman,

Lee Callaway,  Richard Didham,  Aaron Taylor...struggle to think of any more.  Carston, Callaway and Pitman would be the only ones under 40.

Training ?     one trainer was told that we would have to gallop on the sand.  But I'm informed that the sand is being eliminated for contamination reasons,  so....beats me.

I've considered the Hughes' , and Champion/Murphy, as one entity each BTW.

Edited by Freda
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6 minutes ago, Freda said:

Training ?     one trainer was told that we would have to gallop on the sand.  But I'm informed that the sand is being eliminated for contamination reasons,  so....beats me.

 

Rangiora?

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