Ever since I started watching thoroughbred racing I loved it. I love to watch these horses step onto the track and run their hearts out. I love the thrill of the sprints, the last stretch of distance races, the brilliant blowouts dirt can produce, and the heart pounding blanket finishes turf gives. I love almost every aspect of this sport, but just like any other sport or business, it has it's problems. Problems such as breakdowns.
Over the years racing has had a problem with high profile breakdowns, in 2006 we saw Barbaro's tragic breakdown in the Preakness stakes, only 100 yards after breaking for the gate. Eight months later he died due to laminitis. Also that year we saw Pine Island and Fleet Indian break down in the Breeders Cup Distaff. Pine Island euthanized. In 2007 we saw George Washington struggle over Monmouth's sloppy swamp of a track before being pulled up in the stretch of the Breeders Cup Classic, he too was Euthenized. Last year we saw the gallant filly Eight Bells break both front ankles after her runner up finish in the Derby. We also saw the gutsy, honest Wanderin Boy, who ran second to the likes of Curlin, Lawyer Ron, Invasor, and Bernardini, finally meet an injury that he not only couldn't come back from, but took his life.
Racing has since then has made changes in an effort to eliminate these break downs, like setting toe grab regulations, cracking down on drug violate rs, and installing synthetic tracks. Many of these changes have been for the better of the sport, but these new synthetic tracks are not one of them. They are inconsistent and unpredictable, and seem at times to need more maintenance than a conventional dirt track.
These tracks were said to be safer, yet this year Del Mar has had a total of eight breakdowns. Last year after the Breeder's Cup events Santa Anita had a spike in breakdowns, had no idea of what the cause was. Turfway Park at almost the same time was having a spike as well, and like Santa Anita, they had no idea why. Trainers are saying that synthetics don't eliminate the breakdowns, you are just getting different types and in different places. On synthetics you see more hind end injuries and soft tissue injuries, where on dirt you see more bone injuries. These tracks can also produce very high temperatures. Last year at Breeders Cup the temps. approached 120 degrees, on the track.
Another thing that synthetics have done is take away some of the most anticipated races of the year. This year the star three year old filly Rachel Alexandra will not participate in the Breeder Cup events against the unbeaten older mare Zenyatta. The connections of Rachel Alexandra do not believe in synthetics and refuse to race over them, while Zenyatta has made 11 of her 12 career starts over synthetics. Had California stayed with dirt tracks we would get to see both these champions duke it out in what was supposed to be a day of champions, but now because of synthetics, it has been turned into a watered down version of the race it should've been. Also there is controversy that turf horses do better going from turf to synthetics, than a horse going from dirt to synthetics. This seems to be true, seeing as how in almost every synthetic race a European horse was present, they took home the prize, including the Classic where dirt champion Curlin checked in fourth, with the top two finishers the top two three year olds in Europe. Many argue that on dirt Curlin would've won his second consecutive Classic, being the only the second horse to pull off the feat.
Synthetics are not the answer to our problems, and are quickly becoming old. Many well maintained dirt tracks, like Saratoga, have proven that a well maintained dirt track is just as safe or better than a synthetic track. In saying this the real problems do not lie within the dirt, they are in all the inbreeding for speed and the drugs that trainers give to the horses. If breeders would turn back the wheel of time and start to breed for more endurance and soundness again, rather than cheap brittle speed, we would see a lot less horses getting injured. If we would stop all the meds and just run our horses on hay, oats and water, we would again in a few more years have our iron horses back. The problem lies deeper than the surfaces, you just have to dig a little bit and then address the root of the problem. Then, and only then can we go back to the years of the iron horse.