S P E C I A L R E P O R T S
Horses exercise on the what has been for Keeneland a successful change over to a synthetic surface.
IT HAS NOW been almost four years since the primary launch of artificial tracks in North America and although the industry is making progress in its quest to convince both the public and the players of the merits of synthetics there still exists apprehension and opposition to the initiative. Moreover, controversy and perplexity continue to vex the consensus that synthetics are superior to their dirt counterparts.
Following Santa Anita’s return to dirt in 2010 after three years of headaches with two different synthetic tracks the report of 12 racing and 7 training fatalities during its winter-spring meet unleashed a tirade against God’s earth from the pro-synthetic advocates.
“I know that what I’m about to say is not politically popular in the industry right now,” Nick Nicholson, the president and chief executive of Keeneland, said, “but when Santa Anita goes to dirt, and as many horses lose their life on that racetrack in three months as have on this racetrack in five years, you just can’t sit back in good conscience and be satisfied with the status quo.” 
While these fatalities are indeed tragic and cause one to reflect upon the situation at hand, what is necessary for consideration are other mitigating factors that may have contributed to these deaths. Can these all be ascribed to the track surface or are the breakdowns a complex balance of the many risk factors for injury? Bad luck perhaps? Just as some may scoff at the notion of luck having even the remotest thing to do with these losses this is precisely the reason given for the recent fatalities at Del Mar’s Polytrack.
During the 37-day Del Mar Thoroughbred Club meeting that opened on July 20 this summer a total of 12 horses succumbed to fatal injuries much to the dismay of Del Mar’s turf and landscape superintendent Leif Dickinson. Eight of these occurred on the synthetic Polytrack – two as a result of racing and six occurring in morning workouts when there are no state veterinarians checking horses. 
No one is placing blame on the track surface and all are in consensus that the fatalities are simply “bad luck”. As Madeline Auerbach, owner and breeder of 3-year-old colt Burn who fractured his right foreleg before the first turn of the 1 1/8 mile Del Mar Derby acknowledges:
“Horses can be on the most perfect surface, but they’ll land funny, and that’s all it is,” said Auerbach, who was elected to the prestigious Jockey Club this summer. “People like to blame this, that and the other, but there is no blame. It’s just one of those things we don’t have any control over. I sent out a perfectly healthy horse with no problems on a perfectly good track, and it happened. There is no blame. It’s just the racing gods.” 
As the Devil’s Advocate would ask – Is this fair to place blame on the Santa Anita dirt track for the fatalities while at the same time sanctioning the breakdowns on the Polytrack by way of “bad luck”? Perhaps from pro-synthetic champions it is, but on the other hand others are not so quick to judge. A spate of fatalities also occurred during Santa Anita’s 24-day autumn meet where trainer Barry Adams expressed dismay and rancor with the tracks’ new dirt surface.
“For Southern California trainer Barry Abrams, the end of Santa Anita's fall meet couldn't come soon enough. Barry Abrams voiced his anger about the dirt surface, saying he had eight horses injured, including two that were euthanized from injuries suffered during morning gallops.
"I'm very angry," trainer Barry Abrams told the LA Times. "I think it's the worst it's ever been. It's very dangerous. I'm not venting. This is the truth." 
Then again others disagreed with Abrams assessment: no less the very person who lost horses during the catastrophic 37-day Del Mar Thoroughbred Club meeting dilemma:
"Madeline Auerbach, who owns horses with Abrams and is on the board of directors of Thoroughbred Owners of California, said she doesn't blame the track for her stable's injuries.
"Unfortunately, we've had a real rough patch," Auerbach said. "Sometimes people get frustrated and look for any explanation why things have gone south. We're having a difficult time, but I don't think it's the track's fault. 
“Said Auerbach: 'We’ve had a perfect storm of injuries, and I wish I could snap my fingers and make it better. If I felt this track was causing the death of my horses, I would say, 'Don’t run here' ” 
By and large, a key feature factoring into the controversy is the realization that North American racing is very much different from racing in the UK and Europe. For example, where courses are intrinsically greater in distance, have more sweeping turns and are overall less demanding – not, by any means, from an endurance aspect but rather an acute and critical risk perspective.
NA races are primarily sprints where speed dominates and when coupled with treacherous course design present unquestionable risk and imperil the horses that compete. Dirt is synonymous with speed and this, unfortunately, is what North America racing is all about.
Ceremoniously the Triple Crown is the undisputed model of North American racing – a grueling three-race event on fast dirt tracks over an unrelenting time schedule where speed is key and competition is fierce – all-American as they say. In contrast, the Breeder’s Cup, although hosted by the US, has international flavor and attracts horses from around the world.
Many of the Breeder’s Cup events, but not all as there are turf races as well, take place over conventional dirt which hinders the ability of grass and synthetic track bred horses to compete against NA dirt racers time and again. Sadly this tarnishes NA racing yet further. Simply put, from an international perspective a level playing field is required – normalize the game for equitable and robust competition. In the end this means switching to turf and/or synthetics, allaying the breeding for speed, eliminating race day medication and quelling the unwarranted and ubiquitous use of pain-masking drugs.
What this clearly demonstrates is that comparing North American racing and the rest of the racing world is, like the cliché goes, comparing apples to oranges. No one is condoning the high attrition rate of the NA Thoroughbred, the indisputable elevated number of catastrophic breakdowns compared to the rest of the world, the fatality rates, the inbreeding and ultimately the prohibitive allowance of race day and other medications that add to the swill of its reputation.
Regardless of the pro-synthetic or pro-dirt posture it seems the industry is at a standstill. For/against whatever!
In the end it should not be a matter of blame but rather an honest approach to benefiting the horse - that is and should be the only meaningful objective in preserving this “Sport of Kings”. After all, track surfaces seem to be a “Red Herring” to some degree – something decidedly convenient in the attempt to divert attention from the causal dogma of the state of North American racing in contrast to the rest of the racing world.
It is time that North America wake up to the intolerable exploitation it has delivered these magnificent creatures who ceaselessly instill awe in us all. Most disconcerting is the fact that North America is the derelict of the horse racing world and desperately needs to dismount its soap box in the name of equine welfare.
“Where is there dignity unless there is honesty?” ~ Cicero (106-43 BC)