Are Synthetic Tracks the Answer or the Reaction

June 6, 2023

By Laura Pugh

Photo: First Tapeta Breeze at Gulfstream Park, Ryan Thompson, Coglianese Photos, Gulfstream Park

I remember years ago when I first started following racing. Breakdowns were still prevalent, so much so that tracks, in a knee jerk attempt to stem the injuries, ripped up their dirt and installed synthetic.

On the surface, the change helped, but when looked into trainers and jockey’s reported that while fatalities had decreased, the number of hind end and soft tissue injuries had increased. This led to less over all deaths, but longer recovery times lead to more retirements in some instances, and in others more horses “disappearing”.

There were also reports of worse injuries to jockey’s. They claimed the surface had less give, leading to worse injuries and more concussions. Let’s not forget that Michael Straight and Rene Douglas wound up paralyzed after taking falls on the synthetic surface at Arlington Park.

“I do know for a fact that when you fall on it, it’s a lot harder on you,” said jockey Richard Migliore said to Billy Finnly in a 2010 article for Thoroughbred Daily News. “It seems like when you fall on dirt or turf, you hit and then bounce and roll. It kind of disperses the energy a little bit. I fell on this track [at Santa Anita] about a year ago, and I got planted. I didn’t get hurt, but I was sore for a month. You see more blunt force kind of trauma. There have been some catastrophic injuries with riders, as we know, though I don’t know if it would have been different on dirt. Jockeys are definitely starting to wonder. There’s no doubt about that.”

There were also issues with how quickly these surface deteriorated, namely in California, when at one point, the issues got so bad that the track couldn’t drain properly.

A while back we spoke to Michael Dickinson the famed trainer who invented Tapeta Track. You can read what he had to say HERE

During all of this, I was very against these surfaces for these issues and more. I believed that breeding was the cause of many of the breakdowns. Overbreeding of certain lines that featured brilliant speed, but also conformation faults that led to an increase in injuries.

I got a lot of push back for that opinion. I was told repeatedly that this stuff takes years and doesn’t happen overnight. That is correct, it doesn’t happen overnight, but at the rate we were breeding certain lines and how we focused on inbreeding and line breeding those, my argument was that fragility could take effect much faster than most would give it credit for.

This was in the early 2000’s to about 2010, and in the end, synthetics were ripped up due to the issues they caused. But here we are, 15 years later, about to rush into the same mistake, and once again, refusing to look into how we breed, among other things.

Churchill Downs has seen 12 deaths, nine of which were catastrophic breakdowns. They have stated over and over that their track is not the issue, and despite several track experts confirming that belief, HISA recommended that racing be suspended so that a more comprehensive investigation could be done into the track and horses that passed.

This has caused screams for the synthetics, since no obvious pattern has emerged in what could have caused these breakdowns…. That is until one takes a closer look at the pedigrees of the nine that broke down.

Seven of the nine multiple links to Mr. Prospector, a very fast and influential sire. His profile on American Classic Pedigrees notes that he had an exceptionally built hind end, but slightly offset knees and was turned out slightly on his right front. Traits he reportedly passed on to his progeny. He was retired after he fractured his sesamoid. Of the seven horses, also featured Fappiano, one of Mr. Prospecter’s sons.

Fappiano is the sire of Unbridled, sire of Unbridled’s Song, a brilliantly fast horse, but also unsound. He was very popular as a sire because he imparted his brilliance to his progeny, but unfortunately, his fragility as well. Fappiano is also seen in Tapit babies through his dam, Tap Your Heels. Not only that, but Tapit himself, is inbred Mr. Prospector as his sire, Pulpit dam, Preach was a daughter of Mr. Prospector. Tapit also has issues staying sound while racing, with shin problem delaying his 3-year-old debut.

Bosque Redondo’s pedigree profile features Mr. Prospector three times in the 5th generation. Once through War Front and twice through his dam Nemoralia and once through War Front, who’s pedigree contains Fappiano.

Chloe’s Dream see’s Mr Prospect in the 4th generation on her sires side, and 3rd on the dam side.

Freezing Point only shows Mr. Prospector once, but through Fappiano’s line, from his sire Frosted.

Rio Moon see’s Mr. Prospector twice through the dam Luna Argenta

Swanson Lake’s first five generations sees Mr. Prospector three times, but also see’s Unbridled, son of Fappiano twice. Meaning that in the first six gerations Mr. Prospector is seen five times.

Take Charge Brianna’s pedigree features Mr. Prospector twice. Once on Curlin’s side and once on the dam’s side in the first five generations. But, Rubiano, a son of Fappiano is seen on the dam side twice more, bringing Mr. Prospector’s count to four times between the fourth and seventh generations.

Wild on Ice  sees Mr. Prospector twice. Once through his sire Tapizar and once through Slamitagain, his dam. And since Tapizar is a son of Tapit, there is also the Fappiano influence, bring the Mr. Prospector count to three between generations four and six.

If your still not convinced, let’s look at Eight Belles’ pedigree. The brilliant filly who ran second in the Kentucky Derby before fracturing both of her front ankles, was see’s Mr. Prospector twice. Once through her dam, Away, and through her father Unbridled’s Song, whom I mentioned earlier is a descendant of Fappiano.

This is a small sample size yes, but it should be enough to shock enough sense into the powers that be to investigate a link between unsound lines being overbred through inbreeding and line breeding.

With all this said, the blame is not strictly on breeding. American racing has a serious problem with it comes to doping and its use of therapeutic drugs. Dependancy on either of these two masks the pain a horse would feel, allowing unsound horses to train and race, when they in all likelihood should get a break. When this is mixed with overbred lines that feature fragility, you wind up with rashes of fatal breakdowns.

Let’s not repeat our mistake of 15 years ago. Look beyond the surface and lets finally address the roots of the problem. Breeding and Medication.

Contributing Authors

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh got her first taste of Thoroughbred racing when she watched War Emblem take the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2002. At that...

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