On the surface, Md. happy with tracks

Jockey club: Synthetics trend doesn't apply

May 27, 2006|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,SUN REPORTER

The California Horse Racing Board has given final approval for the mandatory installation of synthetic surfaces at major thoroughbred racetracks in that state next year, but Lou Raffetto, president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, said there are no such plans for Maryland's tracks.

"I don't think what happened Saturday had anything to do with the racetrack," Raffetto said of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro's life-threatening leg injury at the Preakness. "In California, it's different. There have been tracks in California that are not kind to horses. That's not the case, nor has it ever been the case, in Maryland."

Synthetic surfaces have been studied for years. Several tracks in England, for instance, have used the European-designed Polytrack, which is a synthetic mixture of wax-coated polypropylene fibers, recycled rubber and fine sand.

Last year, Turfway Park in Kentucky installed the surface with favorable results. Turfway installed Polytrack as a way to circumvent weather problems and gain a "fair and consistent" racetrack that would remain safe through the variable weather conditions that Kentucky has.

And those issues - easy drainage, allowing for races in nearly any weather, and safety - are chief assets of the synthetic surfaces.

According to The New York Times, the track had to euthanize three horses between September 2005 and January 2006. Over a similar period of time the year before, 14 horses were euthanized. The track also reported fewer horses were bothered by soreness, and through its first meet with the surface that ended in January, the track missed just one day of racing and that was to make sure those traveling to the track would not be put in danger during a snowstorm forecast for the area.

Keeneland, in Lexington, Ky., is also in the process of installing the surface on its main track.

Raffetto said he is familiar with Polytrack, having looked into its use while working in New England and noted the Maryland Jockey Club is kept abreast of developments with the surface through its owner Magna Entertainment Corporation, which also owns Santa Anita, which will be getting a new surface before January.

"If we ever decided to go to a Polytrack, it would not be in response to Saturday's incident," Raffetto said. "Maryland has always had and continues to have as good or better a reputation - and I'll go out on a limb and say the best reputation - of any track in the country.

"Trainers never complain about our track surfaces or that we speed up the track surfaces for big races. Our track stays the same for every race. We run everything under normal track maintenance. And I'll take our racetrack surface over any Polytrack surface out there."

In California, the CHRB said its decision to require the surface change followed several months of discussion, study and research into the merits of synthetic surfaces, which include Polytrack, Tapeta, Cushion Surface and StaLok.

Dr. Susan M. Stover, an equine researcher at UC-Davis, is among those studying racetrack surfaces, which can be inconsistent from track to track, increasing the risk to the horses.

"The industry, in a very positive move, is looking very seriously at converting racetrack surfaces to Polytrack surfaces," Stover said.

Craig Fravel, the executive vice president of the Del Mar (Calif.) Thoroughbred Club, added: "I don't want to pretend that the injury [to Barbaro] would not have happened if there had been Polytrack [at Pimlico], but racing can no longer get along with saying that's all part of horse racing. I think our actions in California will show the way for a lot of people around the country."

Maybe so, but Raffetto said that while tracks "like Turfway, that have to deal with freeze and thaw cycles, or California, where there have been issues [with uneven and hard tracks] will benefit," Maryland racetracks are quite different. He also pointed out that millions of dollars have just been spent to resurface Laurel Park and that Pimlico has always had a very good surface.

"Right now," he said, "because of what happened to Barbaro, people are looking for ghosts."

Barbaro, by the way, continues to do exceedingly well.

"He looks good, everything is fine," Dr. Dean Richardson, chief of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania's George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals in Kennett Square, Pa., said yesterday. "And his appetite is particularly good."

Sun reporter Frank D. Roylance and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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