Synthetic Surfaces Debate Rages On
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Synthetic Surfaces Debate Rages On
by Terry Conway - May 2010

 former Fair Hill trainer Michael Dickinson

Back in late March the world's richest horse race was staged on a Tapeta synthetic track. Gloria de Campeao-- owned by a Swede and trained by a Frenchman in England-- captured the $10-million Dubai World Cup in a thrilling three-way photo finish.

Five of the seven winners on Dubai World Cup Night at the sparkling new $2.7 billion Meydan racecourse were trained on the Tapeta surface. That included the first three finishers in the World Cup who worked exclusively on Tapeta for several months. Of the $26 million in purse money offered that night, owners of horses prepared on Tapeta collected over $17.5 million.

The Tapeta surface is the brainchild of former Fair Hill trainer Michael Dickinson, who arrived in America in 1987. It is a precise mix of sand, rubber and fiber layered four to seven inches deep over a two-inch layer of porous blacktop above stone.

Dickinson began tinkering with the synthetic surface in 1992. Working with 52 different formulas he whittled them down and four years later installed the first Tapeta track at his farm and training center set on the northern stretches of the Chesapeake Bay in North East, Maryland. Eight Grade-1 winners came off his farm in eight years, including Da Hoss who won the Breeders' Cup Mile in 1996 and 1998, following a layoff of nearly two years.

"After that some horsemen wanted to use the surface themselves so that is when we started Tapeta," Dickinson said, explaining the evolution of the new surface.

A tall and lanky former steeplechase jockey, Dickinson established Tapeta Footings Co. and walked away from training in 2007. The artificial surface has been manufactured for use on Thoroughbred racetracks and about a dozen training facilities around the world, including Michael Moran's farm in Unionville, Pa.

For racing purposes the Tapeta (Latin for carpet) is in place in the U. S. only at Golden Gate Fields in northern California and Presque Isle Downs & Casino in Erie, Pa.

"Golden Gate fields has been at times very good, but other times not as good as it could have been," Dickinson acknowledged. "At Presque Isle, now in its fourth year, trainers and jockeys are unanimous in saying it's the best it's ever been."

Crown Jewel

Dickinson's crown jewel is the Mayden racecourse in the United Arab Emirates. He spent January through March at the facility.

"Any track whether it be synthetic, dirt or turf should not be hard or loose and cuppy," Dickinson explained. ""You want it tight on the top and soft underneath. The top two inches should be quite firm so a horse can grab hold of it. When I spent that time at Meydan I spoke constantly with world-class jockeys and trainers from around the world. They told me what they wanted, and I gave it to them.

"In a prep race three weeks before the World Cup three horses were separated by three feet. On World Cup night the same three were separated by three inches. Given the fact there were 14 runners and the horses don't run in lanes, the results were nearly as accurate as a Swiss watch. The English bettors loved it. There was no bias. The best horse won."

One of America's premier jockeys, Kent Desormeaux, a premier American jockey, concurred.

"It is the best synthetic surface I have ridden on," Desormeaux related. "On it all things are possible. Horses can go wire-to-wire and they can come from behind because there is no kick back which keeps the horses happy."

A native of Yorkshire, England, Dickinson is optimistic he will receive new orders over the next few years. He ticks off interested racetrack officials from France, Norway, Oman, Qatar and Australia. Arena Leisure, which operates Lingfield, Southwell and Wolverhampton racecourses could be among the first customers for the new surface in Britain.

Mimics turf course

A study done by Dr. Susan Stover of University of California Davis showed that synthetic surfaces alter the way forces are distributed up the horse's leg, creating a better landing surface that essentially mimics the consistency of a turf course. An added benefit of synthetic surfaces is that water flows vertically into drainage pipes, which eliminates the rain puddles that can compromise a dirt track's condition.

Mike Trombetta has trained horses on Tapeta for a number of years at the Fair Hill Training Center and has a string of horses that run at Presque Isle each year.

"There aren't any rain issues," Trombetta noted. "Water goes right through it. It leaves you with a nice surface so you don't miss any time breezing your horses due to inclement weather. Tapeta is a very consistent surface and pretty fair. I think the overall feedback has been very positive."

Considerable Skepticism

Still, in the U. S. there remains considerable skepticism over all-weather track's supposed superiority when it comes to racehorse welfare. This spring rumors ran rampant that Santa Anita Park was planning to rip up its troubled synthetic surface (Pro-Ride) and return to conventional dirt. The California Horse Racing Board has already signaled it wouldn't block the change to its statewide mandate four years ago that dirt surfaces must be replaced with synthetics of each track's choice. In California a growing number of trainers have lost confidence in synthetic surfaces, which were supposed to be all-weather, consistent and safe.

Trainer and attorney Darrell Vienna voiced his considerable opposition in a Blood-Horse magazine article.

"Today the installation of synthetic tracks in California is best characterized as a failed experiment.

None of the synthetic surfaces lived up to the marketing hype. The synthetic tracks require incredible amounts of maintenance . . . and have not proved to be kinder or safer.

"With each passing meet the synthetics began to lose luster. Horses began presenting new types of injuries. Hind leg lameness has increased. Soft-tissue injuries began to occur with alarming frequency. The return of natural surfaces appears inevitable. We see Santa Anita as the first in a new wave of tracks to abandon synthetics."

Strong stuff. Dickinson's response: all synthetic surfaces are not created equally, and proper maintenance is critical for a good surface.

"I know Darrell, like and respect him," Dickinson said. "I understand his concern in regards to synthetic tracks. But I think he should take the time to visit Meydan or speak to the world-class jockeys who rode over it or the elite trainers that trained over the surface for an extended period of time. That track is a vastly improved surface than surfaces installed three years ago. Our tracks for 2010 will be even better."

Consistent Surface

Whether a track surface is dirt or synthetic, it is very hard to keep a consistent surface.

"You've got four hours of training in the morning, then just a couple of hours to get ready to race most of the afternoon," Trombetta noted. "Anytime you train animals like we do there is always a risk of injuries. If the maintenance is done correctly those numbers should be able to be reduced quite a bit."

So why have American tracks backed away from synthetic surfaces?

"A few people are nervous, and not everyone likes synthetic tracks in the U.S., but the rest of the world does," Dickinson insisted. "Some claimed that there were hind-end injuries occurring from the synthetic surfaces. People suggest there isn't enough slide and when the horse hits the ground, it stops abruptly. That is not the reason. The tracks have been too loose. A horse hardly slides at all on turf. Horsemen know a good turf course is the safest surface. You want a stable surface, not a moveable one.

"We have not had a single hind-end fatality since Presque Isle Downs opened three years ago.

Last year, their top 20 trainers did not have one strained tendon between them. The fatality rate was 0.7 per 1,000. That is more than 300 percent better than dirt. Slowly but surely the good word will spread, and after the facts and figures are unveiled, the results will ultimately speak for themselves."

Critics Equal Believers

There are as many critics as believers; not surprising in an industry where there is absolutely no consensus about anything. Nearly every synthetic racing surface that has been installed has experienced maintenance issues, some obviously more than others. They present a myriad of challenges for breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians, track superintendents, track management, and the betting public.

Dickinson declined to reveal the cost of his Tapeta surface installation, but did say that the $8 million to $10 million cost that has been bandied about in recent years is overstated.

According to Dickinson the evidence is compelling: synthetic tracks are less likely to produce fatal injuries in racehorses than the conventional dirt alternative. But with the America's bad economic climate and racing's ongoing financial problems racetracks cannot justify the approximately cost it takes to make the change. None are expected this year.

Still, Dickinson hopes they will reconsider, saying the new generation of synthetic tracks will be much improved and vastly better than dirt. Simply put, Dickinson says that jockeys and trainers deserve and expect the best track.

"Tapeta is a much kinder surface, one designed for safety and leveling the playing field," Dickinson noted. "I passionately believe that a good Tapeta surface enhances horse welfare. In three years of training in the morning at Presque Isle, we've not had the ambulance out once."

Terry Conway, the racing wrier for the Pennsylvania Equestrian, can be contacted at tconway@terryconway.net