Jul 30, 2009

Battle of Track Surfaces - Which Will Reign Supreme

Everyone seeing the news that 6 breakdowns have occurred at Del Mar racetrack since the start of the meet 10 days ago? Ugh. I never actually had a problem with synthetic racetracks -- I just hated them because they were attempting to fix a symptom, not address the underlying problem (i.e. that we are breeding too much for speed, not for the accompanying strength of bone necessary to sustain it). But in reading the above-tagged article, something very interesting struck me: "Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, said while there are not yet studies to scientifically prove it, breakdowns will often cluster at the beginning of a meet because of a change in racetrack surface. Southern California has three different synthetic main tracks. Del Mar has Polytrack, Santa Anita has Pro-Ride, and Hollywood Park (whose meet closed July 19) has Cushion Track. The Cushion Track this year has been playing more like a traditional dirt surface.

'In the 1980s, the HBPA (Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association) funded a survey that had good data," said Arthur. "It showed that the first two weeks of meets were when most fatalities occurred. That was back when the Southern California dirt tracks were very different from each other. The way I interpret the data, horses had to adjust to the new track. That was never confirmed. It is simply a hypothesis.'"

You know that had never occurred to me before, but it seems completely obvious. I constantly fretted over footing when it got colder, when more horses were riding on the track tamping down the surface, when someone watered it too much.... My horses weren't running full speed, but they were certainly affected by even subtle differences in footing. I can't imagine the stress that could occur on a horse's bones from moving between different surfaces and, to top it all off, Southern CA tracks are using 3 different kinds of synthetic surfaces! Frankly, that doesn't actually seem to be all that helpful in the end-goal of preventing tragic accidents.

By this logic, I fully understand the controversy inherent in switching champion dirt racers to synthetic tracks. And while I always completely supported Jess Jackson's decision not to race Rachel Alexandra in the Breeder's Cup over a synthetic surface, it makes even more sense in light of this theory.

And yes, I realize it's still just a theory. But superficially it seems like it could have legs and until more studies are done, I think it is certainly a valid argument in the ongoing battle of track surfaces.

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