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.”