Saturday, December 19, 2009

Synthetics Need to Go

Barbaro, Eight Belles, Fleet Indian, Pine Island, and George Washington. All these horses have one thing in common, they all broke down on a conventional dirt racetrack. All but one of them broke down and ended up dead. Due to such high profile breakdowns Turfway, Keeneland, Arlington, and all major tracks in California converted to, what was then thought to be the safer, synthetic tracks. These tracks are made of carpet fibers, rubber, wax, and dirt, and in today's era of synthetics there are a variety of brands, Tapeta, Polytrack, Cushion Track, and Pro-Ride.

The one state that exclusively races it's top horses over synthetic is California, home of Champion Older Female Zenyatta, who has made 13 of her 14 career starts over synthetic tracks. Synthetics were installed to be a safer version of a convetional dirt track. They were also supposed to be easier to maintain and unaffected by the weather, whether it be in extreme heat or the bitter cold. However over the past few years these tracks have been used they have been the total opposite of what they were reported. Synthetics do not play like dirt, they are effected by weather, they are not easier to maintain, and don't even seem to be safer than conventional dirt.

Horses today are not being bred to run on synthetics, they are still bred primarily for turf or dirt, which is what the majority of the defining races for a thoroughbred are run over. Because of this many dirt horses going to synthetics flounder over the new surface, while a synthetic horse, which is normally bred to handle dirt, switching over to the conventional dirt will, for the most part, take to the surface quite well. Some recent examples of East Coast failures over Synthetics are Bulls Bay in the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Breeders Cup Dirt Mile, Curlin finishing fourth in the Breeders Cup Classic, Regal Ransom in this year's Classic and last year's Norfolk, and Summer Bird in this year's Classic. Examples of synthetic horses transferring well to dirt are I Want Revenge in this year Gotham and Wood Memorial, Pioneerofthe Nile finishing second in this year's Kentucky Derby, Papa Clem in the Arkansas Derby, Colonel John in last year's Travers, and the unbeaten Zenyatta in last year's Apple Blossom.

Synthetics are also inconsistent in so many different ways it will make your head spin. First off different brands are so wildly different from one another you can never really be sure if your horse may take to a different type of synthetic, even if they are already proven over another brand. Again, it seems to be an east coast west coast thing, since you normally see the worst results when horses coming from Keeneland's Polytrack to Santa Anita's Pro-Ride seem to flop like a fish out of water when swithing surfaces. Another way that synthetic tracks are inconsistent is by the way they play in the mornings to the afternoons. Trainers have said that when working their horses in the morning the synthetics are tighter and play more like a dirt track, yet in the afternoons, when the sun reaches it's highest point in the sky and the temperature begins to cook the track, the wax begins to melt, causing the track to become looser and harder for horses to get a good hold on. So you never know how your horse is going to react on race day, even if they've been burning up the rubber in recent works.

All these problems though are not the main thing that bothers me, it is the fact that these tracks were reported to be safer, yet the unpredictability they have displayed recently says otherwise. Last year after the Breeders Cup World Championships there came a rash of breakdowns that Santa Anita. Right around the same time Turfway Park also underwent a large amount of fatalities in a short amount of time. Though each track assured the public that all was well they left out one very important thing, and explanation, and not knowing what was causing these breakdowns is a very troubling thought. This year at Del Mar we saw a total 12 breakdowns in the first two weeks of the meet, in one race alone we experienced two breakdowns, one career ending and one fatal. Now, back to the 2009 Santa Anita meet, we have our most recent fatality, six time stakes winner Carlsbad, who was euthanized on the track after shattering her right ankle while completing a seven furlong workout.

They were supposed to be safer, they were suppose to be more consistent, they were supposed be better. Now years after the breakdowns of Pine Island, Fleet Indian, George Washington, Barbaro, and Eight Belles, I can honestly say these tracks have greatly dissapointed. We gave them their trail period and we gave them time and all they have done is more damage than good, causing division among our sport, which is in need of unity. In their trial period they have proven that they are the exact opposite of what they were suppose to be. The age of synthetics needs to come to an end.


  1. Very well written. When the Pro-Ride/Synthetic tracks were first established, I was very excited, thinking they would be much safer, but I absolutely agree with you, they are far from safer than dirt tracks. Every time I turned around there was another breakdown on a synthetic surface. Recently a female jockey was almost killed at Keeneland.

    Thank You for bringing this some what controversial subject to attention. I hope you don't mind, I'm going to forward this excellent column to my friends.

  2. Luvbarbaro,
    I don't mind at all if you forward this to some of your friends, I consider it a huge compliment you think so much of it.

  3. Synthetics need to go!

    hi. I'm TKS and I approve of your statement. :-)

  4. great article,well stated and documented...point is dani everything is done with one thing in mind the almighty these interests that were sold on the synthetics have bought and sadly will have to get their moneys worth...face it they are not going to tear up these surfaces and install conventional dirt which cost more money....what is true and practical is we just have to let it run its course....30 odd some years ago calder had an artificial tartan base track one of the first in the nation,shippers had a hard time handling at first asking...opinion is that acclimatisation and familiarization plus application....helps

  5. Hello TKS,
    Welcome to Horsin Around. Glad to have your agreement. I was actually expecting to have some more people put up a fight for these surfaces, but from what I'm getting most of us have the same opinion.

    They replaced there other tracks quick enough and SA switch out there track twice I believe. They lost a lot of participation from some of the best dirt horses in America, and now, because of the lack of play they will get from the east coast, I doubt BC will let them host again any time soon, which is a pretty big $$$ loss and publicity loss, and right now, most of the tracks in Cali need all the money and good PR they can get. Loosing the BC and or loosing some of the best horses your country has does not give you either one of those. Some may point out that Euros won't come over, but again, I think they're wrong, since the Euro's will wish to compete in our turf races like normal. Yes, putting in dirt again will cost more money, but in return they will probably get more east coast shippers and a lot soon of a crack at hosting a much fuller BC program

  6. Fleet Indian did NOT break down...she siffered a suspensory tear in her ligament...her injury is a COMPLETE difference than the others you mentioned.

    While I support the differences in opinion about dirt vs. synthetic...I DO think therte is ALWAYS room for improvement and wish they would have improved the synthetics BEFORE they installed them because the could quite possibly BE safer but until they perfect a certain variety of synthetics the tracks that have them now should not be used for research and statistics compiling. Even Zenyatta's trainer John Shirreffs said his superstar mare is better o n dirt but that he didn't really have a choice on where he trained her because all CA tracks are syntheitcs. I think they should reverse the CA mandate and leave it up to the tracks as to which go to synthetics or revert back to dirt.

  7. Anon,
    IMO she did breakdown. I don't base breakdowns on just bones, it weather that horse was taken out of the race by the jockey and how the jockey did it or if the horse, god forbids, falls on the track. Ruffian did not fall, but still broke her ankle, and was stopped sharply, the same way as Fleet Indian was. She may not have broken the bone, but she was stopped suddenly by her jockey and taken out of the race. She was not eased as some are, she was stopped and taken out of the race.

    You are right there is always room for improvement, but while there is for synthetics there is for dirt to. When properly maintained dirt has proven to be safer than synthetics, an example is Saratoga having only two breakdowns over the last two years. Personally I'm tired of looking and hearing about synthetics, I want them gone. This may be just a knee jerk emotion due to the death of Carlsbad, but right now I want them gone.

  8. LDP,

    So, playing the devil's advocate (not because I disagree with you, just that it's fun to do) are you as outraged that SOUTHERN EQUINE STABLES lost a juvenile on Saturday on the Fair Grounds dirt?

    V JACK, son of FUSAICHI PEGASUS out of SILVER TORNADO, was euthanized after he broke down in the 7th as the 4-5 favorite. He broke a front cannon bone.

    In light of that event, should horse racing also do away with dirt races?

    I've been outraged in the past over the synthetic surfaces. Last December 26, I was sure I'd seen the '09 Kentucky Derby winner break his maiden at Santa Anita. However, POINT ENCOUNTER was knocked off the Derby trail (he was Wynn's 15-1 future book favorite) and has not raced again due to an undisclosed soft tissue injury.

    Is dirt the real answer? Eric Guillot must be sick that he lost a $1 million yearling purchase at Fair Grounds who'd broken his maiden very professionally at Del Mar in his career debut at 3-1. He left Cali due to the synthetics and was rewarded with this breakdown/fatality on dirt.

    They'll keep getting hurt, it's part of the game.

    I believe that the Breeders' Cup will continue to push synthetics for their event as often as possible. Sheikh Mohammed put a synthetic main track into his brand new Meydan Racecourse, the new home of the Dubai World Cup. His colt won the BC Juvenile on Santa Anita's Pro-ride. Two (Del Mar and Keeneland) of the most prestigious "boutique" meetings have Polytrack main courses. Synthetics have been mandated in California. Turfway Park and Presque Isle Downs have Polytrack and Tapeta Footings, respectively.

    I heard a rumor that NYRA is looking into synthetics to replace the inner dirt course at Aqueduct.

    Right now I'm a little upset LOOKIN' AT LUCKY will be shipped out of Cali for his two Kentucky Derby preps next year...probably because of the unpredictable nature of the synthetics.

    I'm torn...I want to see great horses compete at the greatest venues. One thing's certain, if that means returning to the status quo (dirt at all tracks) that would be fine with me.

    But to think that horses won't break down on dirt is a pipe dream as well. You noted as much in your opening.

    Is it time now to dig deeper into veterinary practices and training methods?

  9. LDP,

    I agree with good dirt form to synthetics not faring well. SARA LOUISE was a big exmaple of how dirt doesn't translate. Another Godolphin I loved in the Ladies' Classic, MUSIC NOTE, didn't have the same ability to track the pace like she did on dirt but was a game, troubled 3rd anyway. I believe that MINE THAT BIRD has a chance to regain his Triple Crown form when he gets back on dirt...remember, he couldn't stand on the Pro-ride in the Juvenile last year either.

    However, you are way off with the Kee to SA comment.

    You wrote: "Again, it seems to be an east coast west coast thing, since you normally see the worst results when horses coming from Keeneland's Polytrack to Santa Anita's Pro-Ride seem to flop like a fish out of water when swithing surfaces"

    INFORMED DECISION won at both tracks.

    SHE BE WILD and BEUATICIAN 1st and 2nd in the Juvenile Fillies actually improved on Pro-ride after running 2nd and 5th in the Darley Alcibiades.

    MUSHKA was 2nd @ 16-1 in the Ladies' Classic after being put up to 1st in the Spinster.

    NOBLE'S PROMISE was 3rd in the Juvenile after winning the Breeders' Futurity. He also finished 2nd in the Cash Call Futurity.

    PISCITELLI outran his 50-1 odds to be 4th in the Juvenile after finishing 5th in the Breeders' Futurity.

    FURTHEST LAND won going east/west in the Dirt Mile, going Polytrack (TP) to Pro-ride.

    Even SMART BID won the Damascus S. on the undercard after finishing 2nd on the turf at Kee, no east/west problems for him.

    In 2008 DREAM EMPRESS (1st Alcibiades, 2nd Juvenile Fillies), SQUARE EDDIE (1st Breeders' Futurity, 2nd Juvenile) and FATAL BULLET (1st Kentucky Cup Sprint TP Poly, 2nd Sprint) all ran well going east/west, Poly/Pro-ride.

    Those results are definitely not considered "flops".

    Be careful stating absolutes unless you can defend their accuracy. More people like luvbarbaro and his/her friends will be reading your blog. They may be casual fans who consider your posts accurate...give them what they expect going forward.

  10. Amature,
    It's not the breakdowns I'm so outraged at, it is the fact that Cali continues to push them as "safter" than dirt, when the proof that these tracks can be extremely unperdictable regaurding breakdowns shows otherwise. If they would quit pushing them, and try to say they are a safer version of dirt, I would be less incline to be so upset. Another reason I'm baffled by the support of synthetics is because they have shown that they are at least just as good/bad as dirt, depending on how you look at things. My question is if there is relitively not difference and they don't actually play like dirt then why keep them? If they are to be kept my opinion is make it it's own surface, don't call it dirt and don't call it turf, because though it can show similarities, they are wildly different at the same time. If this is to happen and tracks decide to put in synthetics as another surface I think they should be uniform, my preference would be Cushion Track. So it is not the breakdowns I am upset at, it's the attempt to push a lie to the public that these tracks are the same as dirt, but they are safer. It's just not true.

    I didn't consider myself absolute in the comment you pointed out, I said it SEEMS to be, which implies that it only looks like it could be that. I never said it WAS. Some examples of my point are Stardom Bound and CT. CT won huge at KEE last year before coming to SA and boming in the Ladies Classic. Stardom Bound was a huge force on synthetics in Cali, but didn't even come close to demonstrating her normal kick. Now she could've been tired or you could blame it on bad timing by MS, but even with those I would think she could at least show more spark than what she did.