S P E C I A L R E P O R T
WHILE THE CONVERSION to synthetic surfaces was well-intentioned and driven by a desire to improve safety and reduce injuries to both horses and jockeys, there is anything but consensus on their merits, and reactions for those in the industry have been mixed.
Currently the evidence, although at times somewhat conflicting, does indeed favor synthetic surfaces. Still, there many underlying issues that fuel the debate - some perhaps of great significance and others conceivably at odds with the facts.
Much controversy has arisen over the methods of data collection and what is and isn’t included or revealed in the analysis of these data.
Have these statistics been properly interpreted given the many deaths that go unaccounted for?
Or is it simply fodder for the surface partisans as a means of endorsing the safety aspect of synthetics to justify the hasty decision to move to “all-weather” tracks without sufficient monitoring prior to the switch?
These are some of the questions that repeatedly surface.
On the other hand the fatality statistics out of North American horse racing are despondently sobering compared to other major international jurisdictions.
“Going back seven years on all surfaces according to the TOBA study, the rate of CEDNFs (career-ending did not finish) is 0.34%, or 34 starters per thousand. Those numbers do not include horses that are injured in morning workouts, or finish a race and do not race again due to an injury. Those numbers are the highest in the world, and are totally unacceptable.” 
With this in mind a significant undertaking as such is necessary in providing a concerted effort to resolve the dilemma of unwarranted catastrophic breakdowns and other fatal injuries. Perhaps only one of the many inter-related and complex elements that comprise the sport of horse racing but nonetheless an important one if the NA industry is to compete with international repute. More importantly it is vital to preserving the safety and welfare of the horses who race on each and every track regardless of rank and reputation.
Part of the negativity and skepticism surrounding the statistics and ardent denial of acceptance is a result of the lack of data on injuries that aren’t catastrophic in nature. Specifically, there are many deaths that go unaccounted for simply because the horse is taken off the track and later euthanized if the injuries are deemed life-threatening or alternatively the horse is fatally injured during training sessions – statistics that are not included in the studies. This blame is primarily directed at the Jockey Club’s analysis stemming from the Equine Injury Database although work is in progress to include such information to further develop the understanding of injury risk as it applies to synthetics versus dirt. 
“And since racetrack-fatality reporting isn't just an inexact science, it's absolute fiction (only horses who die on-track, count, those that are hauled off the racing surface and are put down even minutes later do not), I don't yet trust that fewer horses are actually dying. Perhaps fewer need to be euthanized on-track due to broken bones, but if they're being vanned-off only to be put down when it's discovered that their hind suspensory is so blown they'll never walk right again, let alone race, what is the practical difference in horse safety?” 
There is undeniably no question that the data collected must extend beyond catastrophic racing breakdowns to clearly delineate the benefits or downfalls of either surface. Furthermore the issue of under-reporting weighs heavily on fatal breakdowns during training sessions in the morning where the vast majority of these incidents take place. 
Subsequently data sets collected to statistically prove out the risk factor do not necessarily reflect reality. Additionally many catastrophic injuries have little to do with the track surface yet the convenience of blaming the surface for fatalities or alternatively crediting it for lack thereof seems all too common.
In the early days of synthetic tracks in NA statistics often misrepresented the truth and/or were manipulated to justify the switch. Most notably the failure to include fatal breakdowns during training sessions was and to this day is a bottleneck in unraveling the truth. While California tracks saw great strides in fatality rates over the synthetics likely due to the extremely poor condition of the age-old dirt tracks prior to their installation, other tracks did not fare as well. 
Another component that has attributed to the raging debate is the release of misinformation by the press and media. In one incident a March 2008 article in the Daily Racing Form (DRF) a claim was made that data collected for the first six months of 2007 revealed no significant difference in fatality rates between the two surfaces.  In fact, the truth was that synthetics came out on top.
Another arose when a commentary in the LA Times reported that Thoroughbreds suffer a higher number of fatalities on synthetics versus dirt. This inaccuracy was simply ignorance on the part of the misinformed reporter. As Bill Finley points out in his excellent piece “Ground Control: The (REAL) Truth About Synthetic Surfaces”:
“It included the information that there were 19 deaths in 2008 at California tracks on synthetics that were directly related to hind-end injuries, and just one death on dirt surfaces related to a hind-end injury. That led the reporter to conclude that when it came to hind-end injuries, synthetic surfaces were much more dangerous than dirt. What the reporter apparently didn’t understand was that the vast majority of all main track races in California are run on synthetic tracks. With only Fairplex and the Northern California fair tracks still racing on the dirt, it was hardly a surprise that synthetic surfaces produced more fatal hind end injuries than dirt surfaces. The entire article was based on a badly flawed premise.” 
It is this kind of propaganda that distorts the facts and makes for great difficulty in providing a clear picture to both the public and the racing world especially given the state of infancy in which the collection of relevant data currently exists.
Some activists go even further when it comes to painting a sinister picture of the data collection methods and the lack of transparency, but is it warranted? Often it seems it is easier to deny than to embrace a change that may prove to better the state of NA racing. One such individual branded as a relentless activist against the inception of synthetic surfaces - Andy Asaro - has posed unremitting and condemning questions as to the legitimacy of the claims in favor of synthetic tracks. 
Most of the accusations embrace the honesty factor of said statistics and the implications of the motives behind the initiative ranging from monetary reward to inconsistency in data collection and reporting. 
"Asaro sent two requests to the CHRB asking whether they had knowledge that Dr. Arthur had any financial relationship with the Keeneland/Polytrack/Martin Collins International consortium. He never received a reply.
"Asaro’s contention is that the statistics compiled by Arthur were both misleading and reckless……comparing the last three years of a dirt surface with a 10-year-old base to a surface made of new synthetic materials and a new base was deceptive, yet Dr. Arthur continued to do so and the CHRB endorsed the findings without additional study.
"……since the middle of 2008, the beginning of the run-up to Breeders' Cup, morning and afternoon veterinary inspections have been stepped up dramatically. He points to the fact that there have been many more program and gate scratches during this period. He challenged the CHRB to disprove his assertions.”
Some may think this to be the diatribe of an enraged horseman obsessed with dirt tracks on a mission to obliterate synthetics altogether. Still others are in clear agreement with the notion that there is something amiss in the venture’s entirety. Veteran trainer - Darell Vienna also a member of the California Bar. - who serves as vice-president of the SoCal chapter of the California Thoroughbred Trainers group had this to say:
“Horsemen have been unable to reconcile their experiences on the synthetic surfaces with Dr. Arthur's conclusions. As you know Dr. Arthur has refused to provide the raw data underlying his conclusionary reports. As evidence of Dr. Arthur's incompetence or misfeasance, I direct your attention to his summary found on page 36 of the CHRB Annual Report, Fiscal Year 2007-2008.”
What this refers to is the fact that Arthur, in his quest to prove synthetics safer, incorporates fatality data from Los Alamos, which includes Quarter Horse Racing. Of the total 77 fatalities reported on dirt, 50 of these occurred at Los Alamos. If these statistics are removed from the study the end result gives evidence of precisely the opposite conclusion where 27 fatalities occurred on dirt and 43 on synthetics – in other words, synthetics are more harmful than dirt. 
Again, the question arises as to whether these are valid arguments or simply frustrated players in a racing jurisdiction where synthetic tracks were mandated looking for answers to contradict the growing database that tends to validate the lower fatality risk associated with synthetic over dirt surfaces.
These examples of the kinds of controversy that exist over the benefits of synthetic surfaces serve to highlight the complexity of the situation and the need for an honest accounting of racehorse injuries during both training and racing venues. What the statistics do not show are the many underlying factors that can lead to catastrophic breakdown.
It is unscientific to focus only on the surface to explain differences in fatality rates. In fact some of the safest tracks in North America are dirt.
In the analysis of career-ending injuries in NA for 2009 compiled by Equibase for tracks with more than 1,000 starts, 4 of the 12 safest tracks were dirt.
TABLE 1. TOP 12 TRACKS IN THE CEDNF STUDY (2009)
|RANKING||RACE TRACK||MAIN SURFACE||% CEDNFs/STARTS|
|7||Presque Isle Down||AWS||0.18|
AWS = All Weather Surface; CEDNF = Career Ending Did Not Finish
This complicates the ongoing debate yet further.
Is it a question of consistency and maintenance? Moreover, is it also related to the proportionately larger number of less prominent dirt racetracks where much older and cheaper horses race?
It is obvious that the synthetic surfaces are only installed at racing’s “big” tracks where many high end graded stakes occur. How do these factors contribute? Are they important?
In the end the number one priority is safety. With time and diligent attention to the intricacies of rigorous data collection with any luck there will be an unambiguous answer.
No doubt one of the most widespread complaints regarding synthetic tracks is the effect they have on handicapping and the betting contingent.
Until synthetics were installed, the handicappers had only dirt and turf ratings to consider which played out according to how a particular horse handled the surface.
Due to considerable differences between the two surfaces this was a relatively easy task seeing as some horses are bred to run on turf and others on dirt.
With the introduction of the all-weather tracks, which are not wholly akin to either dirt or turf, this adds yet another element to the bettor’s assessment particularly since these tracks are used interchangeably with conventional dirt surfaces.
Central to the issue is the fact that synthetics change a horse’s gait due to increased grab and less kickback which is more analogous to racing on a turf surface rather than dirt. Given that the majority of races are run on traditional dirt tracks this not only makes it difficult for horses to switch between incongruent surfaces but also renders time veteran handicapping information ineffectual. This excerpt from an article written by Edward McClelland pretty much sums it up:
“Earlier this year, I watched a Polytrack race and a dirt race side by side at a Las Vegas sports book. They looked like they had been beamed from different planets. At Aqueduct, a Queens, N.Y., racetrack that has so far refused to go plastic, the deep brown dirt was scored with long hoof divots. The Turfway surface, by contrast, looked as sterile as sawdust. On the dirt, freewheeling frontrunners could not be caught in the stretch. Turfway's plasticized races were still up for grabs an eighth of a mile from the wire. Dirt races are won with speed from the gate; Polytrack seems to reward stamina.” 
One can certainly understand the dedicated bettor’s dilemma when speed ratings are one of the major factors in dirt competitions and where it is difficult enough what with the ability of some horses to adapt to different running styles and/or track surfaces together with the jockey’s skill in strategic placement during the race. Some have gone so far as to claim betting handles are down at tracks that have adopted the all-weather surfaces.
These allegations are for the most part erroneous and anchored in skepticism of synthetics particularly among big bettors. The contention of declining handles on synthetics due to reluctance to wager on unfamiliar surfaces can be readily countered given the economic situation in NA in recent years.
“The horse racing business is bad most everywhere. According to Equibase, $15.5 billion was wagered in North America in 2006. In 2009, the final number dipped to $12.3 billion. That’s a 20.6-percent decrease. Some tracks with synthetic surfaces may be down in handle, but they aren’t down nearly as much as the North American average. If anything, synthetic surfaces seem to have helped tracks prevent the type of devastating handle decreases that are plaguing the rest of the industry.” 
Many see these tracks as unpredictable where unwelcome surprises arise and long-shot victories are becoming more prevalent. While there is some truth to this, simply put, they do not favor speed horses, the basis of North American handicapping methodology. If synthetics are here to stay which it so appears in terms of the recent optimistic safety statistics then handicappers will clearly have to catch up. It’s like anything else – the predictability will improve with time as a horse gains experience with increasing lifetime races on synthetic surfaces.
But is this speed versus endurance tradeoff necessarily bad?
Perhaps this is foremost from the handicapper’s perspective but what about the horse? If anything this would be a welcome change from what currently exists in North America where horses are bred for speed, not stamina. Over the last few decades, the breeding industry has invested millions, if not billions, of dollars “breeding for speed” all at the expenditure of rampant inbreeding and increasing unsoundness in the NA Thoroughbred.
While it is laudable and necessary to evaluate the attributes of these novel tracks in their ability to reduce fatality rates the real underlying problems in North American racing are shrouded in rhetoric and denial. Unsoundness and manifest fragility in consequence of the racing industry’s zeal to continuously narrow the gene pool all in the name of speed combined with the fanatical use of race day medication and other pain-masking drugs will undeniably beget fatalities regardless of the track surface.
Forget about the handicapping and the bettor’s quandary. Realistically, with these confounding factors how can a reliable assessment of track surfaces be established? Almost certainly, the carnage will continue.
Continuing to plague the synthetic-dirt debate is the contentious issue of the change in the type and location of injuries that are specific to all-weather tracks.
Time and again both anecdotal and empirical evidence has identified an increase in soft tissue injuries on synthetic tracks particularly those involving the hindquarters.
Additional findings have also been documented.
“There may also be a trend toward injuries moving higher on the horses’ legs and bodies: Dirt tracks tend to produce injuries at or below the knees and hocks, while horses running on synthetic surfaces show more problems with shoulders, stifles, hips, necks, and backs. Some veterinarians have reported a higher incidence of sore hoof soles on the artificial tracks, despite the fact that the surface is generally softer and less slippery than dirt tracks.” 
Many also contend that apart from a decline in catastrophic breakdowns, there are as many injuries, significantly different but equally as devastating in some cases.
“The most common is a body soreness that seems to stiffen up some horses and cause longer periods of rest between races. Some horses never seem to recover from this. Some vets are now treating more joints than were ever treated before the change to try to relieve the soreness, including the treatment of more shoulder, stifle and hip joints. Trainers have reported new types of injuries that seem to negate the premise that the synthetic surface is kinder to horses for training and racing. A prominent leading trainer only trains on the dirt training track to reduce the stress on the horses of training on the synthetic track. Even the fractures that sometimes caused catastrophic breakdowns in training and racing shifted location from the fragile front legs to other bones.” 
And some even go so far as to intimate that they are more dangerous than traditional dirt. Consider the statement by the successful yet retiring Southern California Trainer, Mel Stute, during an interview with the Daily Racing Form (DRF) on his reasons for leaving the industry:
“I blame it on the tracks. They broke me. I owe the feed man. I owe here, I owe there. I don’t know how many tibias and sesamoids I’ve had since the new tracks came in. In my career, the first 55 years, I put down four horses. Since they put in the new tracks, I put down 13.” 
Despite this negative feedback regarding the safety component of artificial track surfaces the consensus among most track veterinarians is that although there has been an increase in soft tissue injuries attributable to synthetic surfaces there are, by and large, fewer true concussion-type injuries.
Moreover most agree that artificial tracks are safer and have had a positive impact on the overall well-being of the Thoroughbred where injuries are for the most part not as devastating nor create as many career-ending scenarios.  Hyped as one of the key features to the wider variety of injuries associated with artificial tracks is the ability of the horse to recover more easily, especially hind-end related. Typically front-end injuries are more damaging and recovery is less than optimistic.
It is widely believed that the California mandate for synthetic tracks was well before its time in consequence of their desperate search to improve the dismal fatality rates and appease discontented fans. Based on the accolades synthetics had received in Europe the CHRB moved quickly and recklessly into unknown territory without familiarity on a number of critical factors inherent to success (e.g. maintenance, impact on racing style) – undeniably a monumental task. 
Regrettably what followed was a campaign to promote the synthetic surfaces as the solution to all of North American racing problems, regardless of track location. This declaration of their unsurpassed superiority has caused much antipathy since their inception.
What is important to realize is that injuries for horses running over synthetics have not been eliminated but rather have shifted. This kindles much criticism from the naysayers within the industry principally as a result of the high expectations when first installed.
Unfortunately these tracks were marketed as the cure-all that would significantly reduce injuries, provide maintenance-free consistent surfaces while at the same time allow horses to run faster with less stress and soreness.
This may have lulled trainers into a false sense of security especially given that synthetics have a propensity to mask a horse’s soreness. 
“You have a tendency to think the horse is doing better than he actually is on synthetics,” Ferraro said.
“And combining synthetics with (non-steroidal medication) is a lethal combination. That tends to make you think your horse is better than he is, and they get hurt.” 
Adding to this common grievance is the highly respected John Shirreffs, trainer of the great mare Zenyatta, who contends, along with others, that problems with unsound horses increased significantly with the installment of the synthetic surfaces in California. 
“Shirreffs said he’s never had more problems keeping his horses healthy.
'I find the attrition rate is very high on synthetics," he said. "There are a lot of injuries in the mornings and those horses don’t even reach the races in the afternoons. It seems the problem is always the hind end. It’s very difficult because on a dirt track, if you’re diligent and paying attention to your horses, you’ll find a little heat or filling. You can adjust the area right away. On a synthetic track, you don’t get that heat or filling. By the time the horse is noticeably off, it’s a much greater problem than it would have been had you found out earlier.' ” 
Many blame the lack of consistency and maintenance issues on pervasive injuries that continue to dog the synthetics.
With fluctuating conditions throughout the day coupled with the learning curve that is required of most horses, there is without question a defined risk of injury.
Moreover, given the fact that the hoof movement on a synthetic track differs from what a horse experiences on dirt together with the change in stride and shift in the bio-mechanics of motion raises the question of whether NA horses are properly bred for these types of surfaces.
While the battle rages on, several individuals have been conducting experiments to better understand the dynamics of racing surfaces – dirt and synthetic alike.
One of these is Dr. Mick Peterson, the Executive Director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory and the Libra Foundation Professor for the College of Engineering at the University of Maine, probably the most prominent authority on racing surfaces in the world. The Racing Surfaces Committee was formed at the inaugural Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit in 2006 while the testing laboratory was established in the spring of 2009 by means of financial support of a wide-ranging industry partnership to enhance surface safety for horses and riders. 
In June of 2011, a “Racing Surfaces White Paper”  was released to participants at the 10th Annual Track Superintendents’ Field Day Conference (June 14-16), hosted by Parx Racing in Bensalem, Penn.
“The fundamental issue behind doing this white paper was the fact that there has been limited academic study of racetracks,” Peterson said. “Veterinarians, engineers and soil scientists have all studied racing surfaces but it has been a modest body of study. This paper will tell researchers and scientists what we don’t know and confirm once again that actions taken to improve safety should be based on sound science and published research.” 
The reaction from those in the industry has been extremely positive. Through scientific knowledge transfer, track maintenance practices that translate to improvements in safety, affirmative measures have been realized. With the goal of optimizing surfaces at a variety of track surfaces at different locations much progress is being made to remedy the longstanding problems of track consistency and uniformity while improving the maintenance skills and judgment of those responsible on a daily basis.
“The Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory conducts 24 different tests at its lab and in collaboration with supporting labs. These tests have been performed for 50 different clients inside and outside of the U.S., with some of the racetracks now in their third year of a comprehensive testing program. The result is that thousands of tests have been conducted for these tracks, which allow surfaces to be compared over time and between racetracks with similar climate and design.
"In addition to the testing, the lab is focusing on evaluating which tests are related to track consistency when evaluated over time as well as developing new tests and the reliability of testing. Procedures are also being developed that will lead to ISO certification.” 
A long time coming perhaps but nonetheless a most instructive and progressive collaborative effort in support of equine welfare.