Keeneland Racecourse announced April 2 that it will join a host of American tracks that are ditching their synthetic surfaces. The most recent installation of a synthetic surface in the US was seven years ago, and only five tracks, including Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle Downs, retain the footing.
It was touted as the gold standard. It would stand up to a deluge of rain and all sorts of harsh weather. It would take away track bias and require a limited amount of maintenance. By early 2008, synthetic surfaces for everyday racing had been installed at nine tracks across North America.
The engineered racing surfaces were represented by names like Polyturf, Cushion Track, Pro-Ride and Tapeta. Six years later, safety-wise, the racing surfaces have lived up to their billing. The latest study released in early April by the Equine Injury Database of The Jockey Club showed that synthetic surfaces were far safer than dirt or turf, producing proportionally many fewer fatal breakdowns.
The high profile and catastrophic breakdowns of Barbaro in the 2008 Preakness and Eight Belles, who broke both front ankles after the wire in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, spurred the rapid transition to synthetics. The rush to judgment was especially swift in California. In 2006, the California Horse Racing Board mandated its four venues install the new all-weather racetracks.
But not long after being installed, the artificial surfaces pivoted from a source of intrigue to a litany of complaints. It was too slow. It favored stretch runners. It left gamblers bewildered which led to a sharp decrease in betting handles. The surfaces lessened the concussion factor when compared to running on conventional dirt, but some trainers said it led to instances of hind end, soft tissue and muscle injuries.
The movement stalled in California. Three years after the Pro-Ride surface was installed, it was under siege by Santa Anita's colony of trainers who cited a string of maddening maintenance problems. Seasonal changes and daily temperature changes affect the surfaces significantly. The new surfaces also short-circuited the calling card of California dirt tracks--- speed, speed and more speed. Owners and trainers grumbled that for generations American horses had been bred to excel on dirt and by switching the tracks to synthetics those vaunted bloodlines were turned upside down.
Santa Anita bailed in 2010 and converted to a conventional dirt track. In mid-February, Del Mar Racetrack confirmed it will scrap its Polytrack once the 2014 meet is over. Then on April 2 came the blockbuster announcement that Keeneland Race Course will be switching its main race track from the Polytrack material to a "state-of-the-art" dirt surface.
Michael Dickinson was home at his gorgeous farm and training center set on the northern stretches of the Chesapeake Bay in North East, Maryland when he heard the Keeneland report. Dickinson had begun tinkering with the all-weather concept back in 1992. Working with 52 different formulas, he whittled them down and installed the first Tapeta track at the Fair Hill Training Center in the summer of 2006.
Dickinson called Keeneland reverting to dirt a dark day for the sport.
"It's a disaster, the sport is moving backward," Dickinson emphatically stated. "You know Bill Casner won the Dubai World Cup in 2009 with Well Armed and the 2008 Travers with Colonel John. Both of those horses did the majority of their training on synthetic surfaces which helped them to keep moving forward. Let me read you something from Bill."
“'I struggle to understand the thought process behind changing to a surface that you know is going to increase fatalities’,” said Casner, a former partner in Kentucky's Winstar Farm operation and an outspoken advocate for synthetic surface.
“‘When a horse breaks down any time, it’s a terrible thing. But when a horse breaks down in front of the grandstand in the afternoon, two things happen: people will turn around and leave the track in droves, never to return, and a jockey will go down and be injured to some degree, whether it’s a bruise or paralysis. When there are agendas placed above the safety of horses and riders, to me, it is unconscionable.'"
Safety Numbers Impressive
The April Jockey Club report showed that the iconic Keeneland Racecourse was probably one of the safest in the nation— with just one fatality from 2,323 starters. Over the past five years it's less than one fatality (.97) for every 1,000 starters. It had been a pioneer and vocal advocate of the all-weather surfaces. It was so bullish, Keeneland brass partnered with British synthetic surface manufacturer Martin Collins with an idea of rolling out more and more of these tracks. That partnership was severed in 2012.
“This is not a decision that we have undertaken lightly,” said Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason. “From the outset of the synthetic surface installation in 2006, we have always said that this is a journey and not a destination. The racing landscape has changed, and for that reason we have an obligation to our horsemen and to our fans to evaluate where the industry is going.”
Today, the synthetic surface project for racing purposes in the U. S. appears to be over. Unable to overcome the U. S. racing industry's historic alliance with dirt, no new synthetic surfaces have been installed in North America in seven years. With a reported cost of roughly $10 million per track installation, there are just five synthetic surfaces left: Arlington Park, Golden Gate Fields, Woodbine, Turfway Park and Presque Isle.
"Our track superintendent Bob Headley keeps track of the temperature and moisture each day which helps him plan his daily maintenance schedule," said Debbie Howells, the Director of Racing at Presque Isle.
"Our horsemen wanted the Tapeta track; it's easier for horses to return, less strain on them. It's had an excellent performance and safety record. The horsemen paid for part of the installation. When we add new fibers and components, they pay part of that too. We're very happy with the synthetic surface."
Wise Dan Benefited
Charlie LoPresti is the trainer of two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan. His brilliant 7- year-old gelding scored his sixth graded-stakes victory at Keeneland— a track record— in the Makers 46 Mile at Keeneland on April 11.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Wise Dan has benefited from this track,” LoPresti said. “If the Polytrack wasn’t here I don’t think I would have had Successful Dan back as many times as I have either. I wouldn’t be able to get any of my horses ready to run in the spring, because we couldn’t train if it was dirt. On the whole, for what I do and how I train, I think the synthetic track is a good track.”
Dickinson was asked about Keeneland's proposed "state-of-the art dirt track." Does it not get muddy or frozen and hard as a rock?
"People say dirt is dirt, but finding superior dirt isn't easy," Dickinson replied. "Santa Anita spent lots of money getting sample dirt from all over the world for their conversion. The kickback to horses and riders is as bad or worse as any track in the country. The fatalities rates are up significantly. Compare that with our Tapeta at Golden Gate, the horsemen and riders love it. They're not taking it out."
Graham Motion's horses train regularly over the Tapeta surface at the Fair Hill Training Center. Stable star Animal Kingdom scored on dirt in the 2012 Kentucky Derby and on Tapeta in the $10 Million Dubai World Cup in 2013.
Proper Maintenance Key
“The biggest problem I have is that people overlook the statistics about fatalities,” said Motion, who earned $5.8 million in purses in 2013. “The synthetic track we have at Fair Hill, we’ve maintained it in the way we’ve been told to maintain it. We’ve never had a problem. The synthetic track problems come down to proper maintenance or upkeep, or that they hadn’t been put in right in the beginning. I’m stunned by all the negativity toward these tracks.”
Dickinson was a highly regarded trainer who trained eight Grade-1 winners, including two-time Breeders' Cup winner DaHoss. He concocted the Tapeta all-weather surface at his Maryland farm. 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.
Tapeta Footings Co. was established in 2007 for the manufacturing of the synthetic surface that Dickinson installed at four thoroughbred racetracks and training facilities in ten different countries. The Tapeta surfaces at Presque Isle near Erie, Pa. and Golden Gate in northern California have been recognized as two of the best synthetic surfaces in the country.
Swimming against the tide, Dickinson would like to see one of the ten mid-Atlantic tracks convert to Tapeta. He suggests Philadelphia Park's turf course as a good candidate.
"It's all about the maintenance, whether it be synthetic, dirt or turf, and should not be hard or loose and cuppy," Dickinson explained in a lengthy phone conversation. "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. Synthetic tracks that had problems had it upside down, soft on the top, tight underneath. Scientists did scores of studies and told us that."
"We've come a long way with these surfaces over the past eight years or so. Tapeta has an active R&D operation so we're constantly tweaking it. The synthetic surfaces we put in last year in Scotland and Australia are the best we've ever done. There are incredibly safe tracks to race and train over."
On any type of surface, the stride of a horse spends a certain amount of time sliding across the top of the racing surface.
“One of the things that make synthetics so advantageous is the ability to control slide without causing an abnormal amount of concussion,” Casner told DRF.com. “The ideal amount of slide is about three or four inches. Most dirt tracks have slides that vary from six to 12 inches.
“Any time you have a longer slide factor, you magnify conformational faults – and 99 percent of horses have conformational faults,” Casner continued. "The more time a limb that toes in or out spends sliding on a dirt track, the more torque you put on that limb. And the more torque you put on the limb, the greater the chance for injury.”
It's been reported that there are nearly 40 synthetic tracks outside of the U. S. with a growing number being installed in Central Asia and the Far East thanks to their growing economies. Dickinson's crown jewel is Meydan, the world's largest racecourse in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. He typically spends a couple months there preparing the charcoal grey track, talking to horsemen and jockeys at the Dubai World Cup that offers $29 million in purses in late March.
At the 2014 Dubai World Championship much was made of the flagging American participation. Prior to implementation of synthetic surface, American runners won eight of the first 14 World Cups. Rumors were circulated that the Tapeta main track could be ripped up with a state-of-the art dirt track lined up to replace it. The mission: to encourage U. S.-trained horses to show up in 2015.
Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum (the younger brother of Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed who built Meydan) told the Gulf News that the synthetic surface was inconsistent. He claimed that "not all the horses give their best" on the surface, that "it needs to be changed" and suggested that the lack of any American runners in the $10 Million Dubai World Cup is "because they are not satisfied with the ground."
"I have been very happy with the performance of their Tapeta track, all the races have been fair and on a level playing field," Dickinson related. "On World Cup night six races on Tapeta were won by six different countries. Above all it was safe, and all the horses appear to have come home safe and sound.
"It's a world-class track for world-class performers. The horses came from North, South, East and West and all delivered their best. Tapeta came out with flying colors."
Contact Pennsylvania Equestrian’s horseracing writer Terry Conway at email@example.com.