Perhaps no other sport is as bound to tradition as racing
Thoroughbreds.From the sheer length of its history, to the grand old
venues in which it takes place, to the top-hatted and red-suited
bugler calling the horses to post, racing loves its time-honored
habits. Normally, it embraces radical changes like a child takes to
Sure, there’s a safety vest or better helmet
for jockeys added here; new exotic wagers and simulcasting and
bigger saddlecloth numbers there. But as for the fundamentals of how
races are run, change usually arrives on the wings of a crawling
It is with great difficulty,then, in this sea of tradition,to
fathom the scope and rapidity of the installation of artificial, or
synthetic, racing surfaces. In the past two years, nine racetracks
in North America have laid down some combination of rubber, wax,
sand, jelly cable, and other ingredients that would seem more apt to
be headed for a recycling center than a racetrack. It is a pace that
bewilders even the staunchest backers of the new surfaces.
As necessity is the mother of invention, one readily understands
the genesis of this movement. Cold-weather locations such as Turfway
Park in Northern Kentucky and Woodbine, near Toronto, struggled
mightily, and often unsuccessfully, to keep their dirt tracks thawed
and fit for winter racing, losing numerous racing dates to inclement
weather, and horses to injury.
Other plants, such as Arlington Park near Chicago, and Del Mar,
outside San Diego, were hit with concussive negative publicity from
local media for excessive catastrophic breakdowns and horse deaths
in 2006. Lexington’s Keeneland found its speed-favoring, rail-biased
racing strip to be far below its lofty standard of “racing as it was
meant to be” during its two boutique meetings each year.
Each of the above tracks, in full search mode, was willing to
move forward based on the success of “all-weather” synthetic tracks
in Europe. But the blockbuster came out of California, whose racing
board decided to mandate that each of the state’s major racetracks
switch to synthetics or lose their dates. This pushed the needle
past “surprise” to “astonishment,” considering the limited track
record of the new surfaces and the lack of data on a host of topics,
ranging from how to maintain the surfaces, to their impact on the
very style of racing, crucial to a state famous for its fast strips
and speedy performers.
Turfway Park became the first track in North America to race over
a synthetic surface two years ago, while Golden Gate Fields is
currently running its initial meet over one.
Already, certain advantages have proven out. New drainage systems
that allow water to drain vertically down through the material have
kept venues open for normal training and race days, eliminating
sloppy conditions and sealed tracks. When it does rain, and races
come off the turf, those horses are able to make the transition to
synthetic racing without needing to be scratched, increasing field
sizes and improving handle.
But somewhere along the line, whether it came from“the glass is
nearly full” manufacturers (Polytrack, Tapeta Footings, and
CushionTrack surfaces have been installed in North America) or from
overly-optimistic track operators, horsemen were led to believe that
synthetic surfaces could cure the halt and lame, and let the blind
The idea got out that these surfaces would eliminate catastrophic
breakdowns, be the end of injuries to horses, and mark the beginning
of no-maintenance-required facilities.
These beliefs, belied by the past two years’ experience, have
caused some hard feelings from horsemen and backpedaling from
“The expectations at the beginning were completely unreasonable,”
noted David Willmot, chairman and CEO of Woodbine Entertainment
Group, which operates theToronto-area track. “Everybody wanted to
believe it, and no question the purveyors of synthetic surfaces—I
won’t say they oversold or misrepresented—but they were certainly
painting a rosy picture.Even though expectations were too high,it’s
still better than what we had.”
Some venues have had relatively smooth skating with their
artificial surfaces;others have struggled with composition,
maintenance, and the vagaries of climate swings from meet to meet
and even from morning to afternoon. What is apparent in speaking to
operators and horsemen alike is that synthetic surfaces are still
very much a work in progress. From farriers to track superintendents
to trainers and jockeys, a learning curve is under way. Thankfully,
cooperation and information sharing are prevalent, and even where
the growing pains have been most egregious, many believe that with
trial and error will come substantial improvement, hopefully both
short- and long-term.
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