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The End of the Synthetic Track Era

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Not so much an obituary as it is, well, I'm not sure what it is exactly.

Man it's hard to find non-Keeneland pictures of synthetic race surfaces.
Man it's hard to find non-Keeneland pictures of synthetic race surfaces.

There's been much ado made about Del Mar's decision to revert to dirt in 2015. There are the synthetic haters that truly believe Lucifer himself set these surfaces on this Earth to make racing worse. That opinion is surely overblown.

Conversely, there are also those that decry the loss of synthetic tracks as a direct threat to the welfare of the thoroughbred. With statistics like the ones Bill Finley espoused in the TDN of 1.22 deaths per 1000 starts on synthetic versus 2.08 deaths per 1000 on conventional dirt it certainly seems like this definitely is an issue. But as with so many statistics, what does it really mean?

Let's review which tracks have which type of synthetic surfaces:

  1. Del Mar (Polytrack)
  2. Keeneland (Polytrack)
  3. Arlington (Polytrack)
  4. Woodbine (Polytrack)
  5. Turfway (Polytrack)
  6. Golden Gate (Tapeta)
  7. Presque Isle (Tapeta)
  8. Ocala (Safe Track)

Ocala only runs one day of the year for the OBS meet, so they're not a true player. But let us examine the list.

Without question, Del Mar and Keeneland are two of the premier race courses in the country. Arlington is of the same ilk as the racing at Churchill, that is not premiere, but definitely high quality. Woodbine is much the same. The next three are basically run of the mill racing, with Presque Isle perhaps being the lowest quality. While I personally cannot attest to the exact quality of some of these, I think the broad strokes I've categorized them as is pretty good.

What I can speak to is that better race horses are of better quality and therefore less prone to catastrophic injuries. So we can say that approxmately half of the tracks with synthetic surfaces SHOULD see significantly lower rates. The Equine Injury Database that is run by the Jockey Club reports 95 tracks in North America participate in reporting injury statistics. Taking out the ones that report above, we have just about 90 tracks in the pool of reporting tracks. Of those, which are of the same quality racing as tracks 1-4 above? Off the top of my head and in no particular order they are:

  1. Belmont
  2. Saratoga
  3. Churchill
  4. Gulfstream (winter meet)
  5. Santa Anita
And in the next tier down (extremely subjective now):
  1. Aqueduct
  2. Fairgrounds
  3. Oaklawn
  4. Monmouth (maybe)
I know that's not all inclusive, but I think you get the idea. Out of the remaining 90 or so tracks, 10ish, or 11%, are of the same level as what half the polytracks are. The other 89% are where lower quality runners are inherently more likely to breakdown, as terrible as that is to say. This is nothing against the smaller tracks, nothing at all, they're not negligent, simply at greater risk.

This is completely ignoring the fact that many trainers believe, and some horsemen do to (count me amongst them), while fatalities are lower, hind end injuries on the plastic are far more common, but hind end injuries are far less likely to be fatal. Ray Paulick does a great job covering a lot of those opinions here.

So in the end, was running on synthetic at those specific race tracks safer? The study that Ray Paulick mentions regarding Turfway certainly indicates that is the case. But can those statistics be solely attributed to the surfaces? Certainly not. Quality of the runners themselves absolutely plays a significant part in all of the stats. Please don't ignore that.

Let's not lament the loss of the surfaces at Hollywood and Del Mar as a loss in safety for our beloved equine athletes. Let us instead continue to strive forward looking for the best means of ensuring the safety at every track nationwide.