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Racing's turf war creates divide

The Baltimore Sun

In the fractious sport of horse racing, even dirt can create controversy.

The issue is dirt tracks vs. synthetic surfaces, a debate that has come to the forefront since the Eight Belles tragedy at the Kentucky Derby.

Many believe synthetic tracks, which include about 80 percent sand and a mixture of fibers and waxes, can reduce injuries and deaths among horses. Others say dirt tracks, if properly maintained, are better for the sport.

The evidence, while sometimes conflicting, favors synthetic tracks. The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation in Lexington, Ky., studied 60 tracks and found a 25 percent reduction in "catastrophic fractures" on synthetic surfaces. It reported an average of 1.47 deaths per 1,000 starts on synthetic surfaces and 2.07 deaths per 1,000 on dirt.

A different survey released this year at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit reported one injury every 215 starts on synthetic surfaces compared with one every 136 on dirt.

The same survey came up with a confusing 1.95 deaths per 1,000 on synthetic compared with 1.96 on dirt.

Synthetic tracks have been used for many years in Europe but have been installed in the United States only in the past couple of years. They are in use at only nine of 129 tracks in North America, including four in California: Hollywood Park, Santa Anita Park, Del Mar and Golden Gate Fields.

The others are Arlington Park near Chicago, Turfway Park and Keeneland in Kentucky, Woodbine near Toronto and Presque Isle in Erie, Pa. Those five tracks voluntarily made the change.

The California Horse Racing Board voted to require most of the state's major tracks to install the synthetic surfaces by the end of 2007 in hopes of reducing the fatality rate among horses.

But the new surfaces have raised the ire of the betting public, who find the tracks much more difficult to handicap.

At the recent short spring meeting at Keeneland, betting was down more than 12 percent. Contrary to public opinion, tracks want as many winners as possible so that they will keep betting more money. A few winners at long odds do little to enhance the mutuel handle.

Opponents of synthetic tracks say fatalities during morning training sessions have not been reduced, although there is no reliable data to back that claim or refute it.

"I think it's fine to train on, but I don't think it's a good surface to race on," said trainer John Shirreffs, who has been among the more outspoken critics. "For horses to run well, whether it's on dirt or turf, they need to have a bottom, something to push off of. Synthetic surfaces don't have a firm bottom for the horse to get a hold, so they really struggle on it.

"As for the injury factor, you have soft-tissue injuries and hind-end problems on synthetic surfaces. A lot of young horses don't like it because it has the give but not the bounce-back factor."

But despite the strength of the figures, most racetracks, including the three that host the Triple Crown - Churchill Downs, Pimlico Race Course and Belmont Park - have not made the switch.

"Unfortunately, none of these tracks can and will eliminate fatalities," said Richard Shapiro, head of the California horse racing board. "[Injuries] will occur for a variety of reasons even if horses raced on air."

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