S P E C I A L R E P O R T
Horses jump out of the gate at Del Mar racecourse.
MUCH OF THE HYPE stemmed from the inauspicious fate of Barbaro during the 2006 Preakness at Pimlico in Maryland.
Apart from the running of the second leg of the Triple Crown, the meet itself was fraught with peril and delivered fatal sentences to no less than fourteen of these magnificent creatures as a result of training or racing accidents – one of the deadliest in the track’s lengthy history. 
Soon thereafter, Richard Shapiro, at that time chairman of the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), mandated that all major racetracks in the state of California convert to synthetic surfaces by the end of 2007. 
While horses were dropping like flies at Del Mar a similar story was playing out at Arlington Park in Chicago.
During the first two months of the season 14 horses were euthanized many laying blame on the condition of the track surface at both venues.  However not all in the racing world agreed with this conclusion.
“But this explanation is a dubious one. The construction and maintenance of racetracks today is much more sophisticated than it was decades ago - when breakdowns were rarer. Moreover, a look at the Del Mar casualty list casts doubt on the theory that dirt was the culprit. Three of the 12 horses injured themselves on the turf. Two or three were horses whose records contained red flags suggesting that something was wrong; one of them, Ugotadowhatugotado, had run well in $62,500 claiming company and was entered for the bargain-basement price of $16,000 on the last day of her life”. 
Irrefutably it is all too common and convenient to hold accountable the surface for what many believe is the lack of accountability on the part of breeders and trainers.
Modern Thoroughbreds are bred for speed rather than soundness and durability; with each generation the gene pool narrows and fragility develops ever more insidiously. This inherent frailty together with the introduction of permissive medicine has all but ruined the breed.
One need only look at the declining number of starts the average American racehorse makes during their career over the last few decades – from a high of 11.3 in 1960 prior to the advent of liberal drug use to a trifling 6.1 in 2010. 
In any case, in no way was the Del Mar incident the only mitigating factor in the decision to switch. Over the course of three years prior to this sobering meet, California race tracks had experienced a 40% increase in equine fatalities which many in the racing industry thought attributable to dirt surfaces.
What further spurred this movement by the CHRB was the significant 85% reduction in catastrophic fatalities observed at Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky after the installation of a synthetic track in 2005.  Indeed these striking figures solicited legitimate consideration and categorically placed immense scrutiny and concerted focus on track surfaces with their inception in North America in the mid-2000s.
Undeniably the other incentive and reassuring justification for the conversion was the impressive success of these “all-weather” tracks in Europe and other international racing jurisdictions. By and large, as data will verify, fatal breakdowns in other parts of the world where horses compete on grass or synthetics are significantly lower than in North America.
Nonetheless a cautionary word is necessarily warranted.
In consigning such prominent emphasis on the type of track surface without accounting for the decline in soundness of the NA Thoroughbred as a result of inbreeding together with the ubiquitous and exploited use of race-day and other medications the issue is subject to uncertainty.
Even today there is only just enough data to statistically validate the positive trends associated with synthetic tracks. As data continues to be collected more information will emerge which ultimately will provide enhanced insight into the complex variables that interact to generate fatality risk.
Moreover, as a white paper published by the Jockey Club’s Racing Surfaces Committee in June of 2011 clearly emphasizes:
“Injury, in particular catastrophic injury, is a multi‐factorial event that involves the complex interaction of a number of risk factors including but not limited to medication, genetics and training…. Given that the overwhelming majority of catastrophic injuries show clear evidence of preexisting disease, (Norddin et al. 1998, Stover 2003) improved racing surfaces have the potential to result in an improvement in the safety of horse racing for both riders and horses.” 
In any case, despite the principled objective of what was intended to establish more forgiving track surfaces with the prospect of improving safety and reducing fatal breakdowns, to this day Shapiro is tagged a much maligned renegade of the NA horse racing world.
This objectionable perception is honored by breeders, owners, trainers, bettors and fans alike where intense controversy rages at the surface of the debate.
One may ask why such dissonance exists when ostensibly the underlying goal of synthetic surfaces is for the benefit of the horse, the racing world’s star performer. Seemingly the answer is cloaked in tradition and resistance to change with undercurrents of monetary gain.
Racehorse MI REY, trained
by Doug O'Neill, is loaded into a truck behind curtains out of sight of the crowd
after he went down near the end of the third race on July 22, 2009, opening
day at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. He was euthanized later
Photo Credit: Bill Wechter/North County Times.
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2006 (JULY 19-26) Main track surface: Dirt Fatalities: 8 Main track: Morning (workouts) 1, afternoon (racing) 5 Turf course: Morning 1, afternoon 1
2007 (JULY 18-29) Main track surface: Polytrack Fatalities: 4 Main track: Morning 0, afternoon 0 Turf course: Morning 1, afternoon 3
2008 (JULY 18-20) Main track surface: Polytrack Fatalities: 2 Main track: Morning 2, afternoon 0 Turf course: Morning 0, afternoon 0
2009 (JULY 19-30) Main track surface: Polytrack Fatalities: 7 Main track: Morning 4, afternoon 2 Turf course: Morning 0, afternoon 1
SOURCE: Del Mar Thoroughbred Club – HANK WESCH