Racetrack Surface Controversy

Polytrack 2 woodbine

Woodbine Racetrack has just recently announced that at the end of this year’s racing, the synthetic Polytrack will be removed and replaced by another synthetic track called Tapeta. Tapeta was just removed from Meydan Race Course in Dubai and replaced with a traditional dirt track. Keeneland in Kentucky and Del Mar in California replaced their Polytrack surfaces with a traditional dirt track as well.

While the Woodbine decision has been made to find a more suitable surface to maintain consistent uniformity and safety to meet the demands of the widely extreme temperatures during the calendar year in Canada, the recent decisions by Meydan, Keeneland and Del Mar to change track surfaces were more to do with obtaining feature horses for feature race meets.

In the case of Meydan, they wanted American horses to compete in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, while Keeneland and Del Mar wanted a chance to host a Breeder’s Cup extravaganza each. Both tracks were successful in obtaining the Breeder’s Cup for 2015 and 2016 respectively, after switching back to dirt.  Meydan used a Tapeta surface for the past five years and saw virtually no participation by American based horses compete in their World Cup race program. The Breeder’s Cup, after trying the synthetic surfaces at Santa Anita a couple of years, decided to have only dirt and traditional grass as the racing surfaces to be used for the championship races. This has all been brought on by the many trainers who refuse to enter horses to race on anything other than dirt or grass. Shall we say boycott?

The first question is: What should be made of this?

We as fans of horse racing keep hearing about the inherent safety of various synthetic racing surfaces over dirt surfaces. How the harder packed dirt tracks have more concussive strain on a race horse’s bones and joints, as opposed to the softer synthetic surface. Statistics are published by various Equine studies praising the fewer fatal injuries when comparing the two. Still many of the top trainers and owners will not support synthetic tracks.

While solely blaming dirt tracks as the cause of catastrophic injuries is just folly, there is cause for concern. The concern should not be directed at racing surfaces, but at the type of animals being bred and the use of medications in North America that mask pain from the horse. Simply blaming track conditions and surface types as to the cause only detracts the emphasis on the real issues of breakdowns in racing and training. Why is it only in North America that race day medications are permitted?

The second question is: Who should we believe?

To answer this question, consider the source of the reports and the reasons for either switching to synthetic or going back to dirt. Before we do, let’s take a look at the more popular synthetics in use around the world.

Polytrack – A mixture of silica, sand, recycled synthetic fibers and recycled pvc/rubber. The entire mixture is coated with wax. This product is or has been in use by Lingfield Park, Kempton Park and Dundalk in the UK, Chantilly in France, Turfway Park, Woodbine, Arlington Park, Del Mar Racetrack and Keeneland in North America, as well as Greyville in Durban South Africa.

Pro-Ride – A six inch footing of sand, nylon fibers, spandex fibers, all coated in a Polymetric Binder, which is on top of a four inch IMC Layer of sand and nylon fibers, on top of a drainage system. Flemington Racecourse and Rosehill Racecourse in Australia as well as Santa Anita in California have or still use this surface.

Tapeta – Sand, fiber, rubber and wax make up a four to seven inch layer of racing surface. It is installed on top of either porous asphalt or a geotextile membrane. Meydan in Dubai, Wolverhampton Racecourse in England as well as Golden Gate Fields, Presque Isle Downs, and soon Woodbine have or will be using this type of synthetic.

Cushion Track – Sand, synthetic fibers, elastic fiber and granulated rubber coated with wax. The footing is eight or nine inches deep on a geometric membrane. Santa Anita and Hollywood Park have used this type in the past.

There are other types of synthetic surfaces such as Fibersand, Visco-Ride and Rashit Track, each having mixtures of sand, silica and fibers and rubber in various degrees of compositions.

Synthetic, or all weather, tracks got their start in the late sixties/early seventies as training gallops or tracks by a few of the top training establishments. The use of these alternate surfaces in place of the traditional dirt surface began to make a wider spread in the mid two-thousands. When the California Horse Racing Board mandated that all state tracks were to remove dirt tracks and be replaced by synthetic types, a wide spread panic ensued. A rash of fatal injuries to Thoroughbreds caused a knee jerk reaction by the CHRB. The California tracks were forced to scramble to get the installations done in time.

This was widely scrutinized by the press and fans. The failure of the two different synthetic surfaces used by Santa Anita, are perceived by many as complete disasters. This was bound to happen due to the rush to install a synthetic track, before a proper research and development time frame could take place. The backlash from this has turned the CHRB mandate to actually be a setback for the synthetic track movement.

Other various racing jurisdictions would conduct surveys into the merits of converting to all weather tracks. Some made the change and some stood pat. However, the controversy has gained momentum. People who are in favour of synthetics view those who are opposed as being hard headed dinosaurs that refuse to change. Those opposed to synthetics view those are in favour of artificial surfaces as being blasphemous to the traditions of the sport.

When you throw in the reports and homemade statistics from various factions that are trying to sway people to their side in this debate, the controversy increases in intensity and becomes even more muddled as to what is fact and what is opinion. This will cause people to take sides and, right or wrong, with the lines of division being drawn, progress will slow down while the sides are arguing. How is this helping the horse?

Question number three: Why should either side take such a stand?

This is the question I want answered. Why? Why could we not have three different surface types for the stars of the show? The old saying: “There are horses for courses” could take on a new meaning. It is known that certain horses excel on grass, while others excel on dirt. A few have even been successful on both of these traditional surfaces. Why not have a third option. It has been reported and proven that some horses are actually better on synthetics and not on grass or dirt. Should we call these horses inferior? I think not. They have found their niche, just like the grass specialists and the dirt specialists.

Many would say “wait a minute”, now we have to have sires that are synthetic surface sires as well as dirt sires and grass sires. While this may be true since many sires are pigeon holed into such categories, it does not mean that it will happen. Many of the great sires in the past raced solely on grass in Europe and then were imported to America and prospered. Nasrullah, Mahmoud, Sir Gallahad III, Blenheim II and so on all raced exclusively on grass. Did this stop the big breeding farms from paying big bucks to bring them over for stud? No. These and many others were very successful, with most of the big wins by their get coming on dirt tracks.

Certain conformation traits in horses can lead to specialization of surface preference. Since grass racing and dirt racing seem to be quite the polar opposites, synthetic surface racing would be a middle ground between the two. It has been said that a grass specialist has a bigger advantage over a dirt specialist when racing on a synthetic surface. There may some validity to this claim except that these claims are coming from the supporters of dirt tracks and do not want to see synthetic tracks prosper. I have seen many Thoroughbreds compete and win on both dirt and synthetic, but do poorly on grass.

Handicappers complain that synthetic tracks are harder to read for speed biases as opposed to dirt tracks. Too many long shots win on synthetics as opposed to dirt tracks.  I say so what! Take time to learn the track’s different quirks. It isn’t called gambling for nothing.

I have been following the installation and reports of the new dirt track installed at Keeneland with great interest. I am very optimistic that with the diligent and sensible engineering that led to the mixture of 87.5% sand with a 12.5% mixture of silt & clay, as well as the state of the art drainage to improve the condition during wet weather is a step in the right direction. If this system works, then perhaps other tracks could follow the lead set by the Keeneland initiative.

Racing has been taking hit after hit of disdain in the public eye for quite some time. Controversies about fatal breakdowns, different interpretations of rules and infractions vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, wide spread use of medications and cheaters who try to mask certain meds from drug tests, as well as cheating jockeys and the like seem to get more coverage in daily newspapers than the good news of champion horses or leading jockeys and trainers. So when the horse racing industry’s big shots start in fighting among themselves about new racing surfaces and airs the dirty laundry in public, the vultures of the press circle and swoop in to fan the flames.

There are some newspapers that have an editorial agenda to kill racing. Certain animal rights groups would love to see the sport go away as well, so they will be adding their two cents. Most of the negative stories about track surfaces published come from these sources. Sometimes quotes are taken out of context, to embellish the point. This is one of the oldest practices in “Journalism”, confuse and deflect the real truth.

What these institutions don’t realize or want to acknowledge, is that horse racing is run by dedicated people who do love horses. The horses themselves are happiest when they run, it is in their nature. They are bred for this.

There are people who dedicate their lives to the care and well being of the horse. These are the people who make the sport grand, and are concerned with the health of each animal they come in contact with. When a horse is stricken or suffers a fatal breakdown, they not only weep openly, but mourn the loss as if it is one of their own family.

So I say this to the people in the sport who get caught up in debates and subjective speculation about new racing surfaces. Honour the traditions, embrace new technology and do the best for the horses and the sport. Don’t get caught up in petty arguments that will never come to a resolution. Stop wasting time and energy on the trivial and put forth the energy to improve the sport. Get rid of race day meds. Breed for stouter, stronger horses. There is always room to improve. This is a great sport that needs some TLC right now. It is time to work together for the common good. Make it so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *