Calls grow to sweep up dirt

Popularity of synthetics rises, but Triple Crown tracks not ready to change

May 16, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun reporter

The Triple Crown, contested at Churchill Downs, Pimlico Race Course and Belmont Park, is still run on dirt. But as more tracks have switched to synthetic surfaces to increase horse and jockey safety, pressure grows for the three historic venues to change.

Lou Raffetto, president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, said he "totally believes" the synthetic surfaces are safer, but he isn't ready to tear up Pimlico's one-mile dirt oval for synthetics - not yet, anyway.

"I'm a believer, but I don't think we're there yet," Raffetto said. "I think the concept is solid, but we have to see how it evolves."

As veteran trainer Carl Nafzger put it after Street Sense won the Kentucky Derby: "No one knows nothing yet.

"I think we're on a three-year learning curve on how to ride on Polytrack, how to train on the artificial surfaces and how to manage artificial surfaces. Right now, I don't think the riders know quite how to ride it. Trainers don't know quite what to expect. And track management is still learning how to maintain it. We've got to wait and see how it's going to play."

The synthetic tracks are supposed to be safer because the surfaces are softer - lessening the impact on a horse's legs - and not affected by weather.

As racing's top thoroughbreds return to Baltimore for the Preakness a year after the devastating injury to Barbaro, safety is a major factor. The 2006 Kentucky Derby winner suffered multiple fractures in his right rear leg shortly after leaving the Preakness starting gate.

But experts agree the track surface had nothing to do with the injury. Pimlico's dirt surface has a well-known reputation of being kind to horses. Last year, only Barbaro and one other horse had to be vanned off the dirt track with leg injuries.

"I don't think a synthetic surface would have saved Barbaro," said Martin Panza, vice president of racing at Hollywood Park. "He took a bad step. That could have happened as easily on synthetics as anywhere. These animals are athletes, just like baseball players who play on well-maintained and -manicured surfaces and still break bones and pull muscles. They can all take bad steps."

The hope with the new surfaces is that they will help minimize bad steps on a large scale.

So far, at least six tracks have installed Polytrack, Cushion Track or Tapeta surfaces. And Cecil County trainer Michael Dickinson, who invented Tapeta nine years ago, has contracts to install his product at Golden Gate in California and Presque Isle, a track being built in Pennsylvania near Lake Erie.

Reports from the tracks that have already installed synthetic surfaces are impressively positive in terms of horse safety.

At Keeneland, where Polytrack was installed last spring, on-track breakdowns have gone from eight in 2004 to zero in 2007.

In California, synthetic surfaces were mandated for every track by 2008, after statistics showed 154 horses were euthanized in 2005, an increase of 33.9 percent from the year before.

At Hollywood Park, where Cushion Track was put down last August, Panza said over the past four months there have been just two on-track breakdowns, and one of those was caused by a heart attack.

"In California, where tracks have always been perceived to be very hard, that's an astounding number, especially considering we have 2,000 horses stabled here, working out in the mornings and racing in the afternoons," he said. "The injuries have been dramatically reduced. Our barn area is full, and they haven't been full in years.

"The perception is the new surface is helping to make our horses safer and our racing better. My opinion is that in three, four or five years from now, if you're operating a racetrack and you don't have [an artificial] surface, you will be at a major disadvantage."

But Keeneland president Nick Nicholson said he could understand why the Triple Crown tracks are not rushing to synthetics.

"Churchill, Pimlico and Belmont, they're the custodians of the Triple Crown races," Nicholson said. "They should not be expected to be at the forefront of change.

"That's the role we play. We're the industry's laboratory, and I'm proud of our place in this. Now we'll see if the tracks continue to perform the way they used to and if they do, the [synthetic] movement will grow."

But even trainers who enjoy training on the synthetic surfaces, such as Mark Shuman, who sends Xchanger to post in the Preakness on Saturday, said he would not like to see every racetrack install the new surfaces.

Shuman said training on the Tapeta surface at Fair Hill Training Center accounts for his winning percentage at Pimlico rising to a robust 47 percent, but thinks there are too many questions about new track biases and about how temperatures will affect the product. He also worries that breeding lines will change for a surface that may not favor speed and wonders about the loss of variety.

"Every horse is different," he said. "Some like off tracks. Some like mud."

And what about the health issues, he wondered.

"You know after you run a race and you bring a horse back and you scope him to check his breathing, you'll find dirt in the trachea," Shuman said. "Dirt, it's a natural substance. I don't know what it will be after all that rubber and fiber flies up and into your horse's lungs - and the jockey's lungs."

Still, Shuman said for especially rough tracks or new tracks, "You'd be crazy not to install it."

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