In dirt track vs. synthetic, safety comes second
For Kentucky Derby week, the Innovation Trail is partnering with WEKU and Louisville Public Media to explore how technology is changing the horse racing industry. This is part three of a five-part series.
When the bugle heralds the start of the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, thousands of people wearing Sunday’s best will be in the grandstands, while college students party away in the infield.
The grandstands are eerily desolate and the infield is populated with just a handful of track workers.
Like every other stop of the Triple Crown, the track at Pimlico is dirt - a surface critics say is more harmful to horses than the new generation of synthetics.
Making tracks more “obedient”
Former jockey and trainer Michael Dickinson was dubbed the “genius” of horse racing in his native Britain. He now manufactures Tapeta tracks, which are a hodge-podge of wax, sand, recycled clothes and, of course, some secret materials.
“We want it pliable. We want it obedient,” says Dickinson.
“It’s an obedient surface. Unlike my wife, my race track will do anything I ask it to do,” Dickinson adds, laughing.
The Jockey Club, a organization dedicated to the improvement of thoroughbred racing, reports nearly 50 percent fewer horse fatalities on synthetic surfaces than on their dirt counterparts. That’s a big part of why Dickinson loves showing off his spongy track.
“See how it bounces back. It’s got life to it,” Dickinson says. “But [the horse has] got to have stability from the rear end, so when he pushes it off he doesn’t want to be spinning his wheels.”
With so many horses avoiding catastrophic injuries, Dickinson’s business is expanding in the U.K., Australia and the United Arab Emirates. It’s even the surface for the Dubai World Cup.
But those customers are overseas. Dickinson doesn’t manufacture his product in the states anymore.
There’s just no market.
“The only reason not to put a synthetic in is the cost,” Dickinson says. “They [cost] about $4 million, OK. So it’s a big ticket item.”
A hard sell?
It’s not all dollars and cents. Another reason synthetics haven’t caught on in the U.S. is cultural.
Trainer Larry Murray’s horses have raced in the Preakness. He’s not sold on synthetics.
“It’s different for the horses,” Murray says. “They have different injuries because of it. And I don’t really think it’s any safer. I think a well maintained dirt track is just as good. But I think that’s the key: a well maintained dirt track.”
It’s true: veterinarian Kathleen Anderson says on dirt tracks you typically get more chipped and broken bones, while on synthetics you find harder-to-diagnose hind leg injuries.
Anderson treats horses at the Fair Hill Training Center in northern Maryland, which boasts a dirt track alongside its synthetic.
Still, comparing injuries from the two tracks, Anderson chooses synthetics.
“Just like artificial turf with football players, they probably have more stress-related injuries than, [for example], concussion-related injuries, and it’s similar with horses,” says Anderson.
Mixed track record
In the U.S., California took the lead on synthetics. The state’s racing commission mandates them.
But the results have been mixed.
Santa Anita Park laid a multi-million dollar synthetic course, but has since won permission to return to dirt. Mike Willman, who directs publicity at the park, says their synthetic surface proved troublesome.
“It became readily apparent very early on that we had some very serious drainage problems,” says Willman. “We had a number of cancelations over a two-year period.”
Synthetic track technology is improving rapidly, but the skepticism has hardened - and money for upgrades just isn’t there.
Graham Motion trained the winner of last year’s Kentucky Derby, Animal Kingdom. He’s a fan of synthetics but says the erratic rollout in California and elsewhere sets the technology back - indefinitely.
“I’m afraid that we might have already missed the boat with the synthetics,” says Motion. “The way they were introduced to racing in this country, I think people are so down on them [that] I’m not sure they’re going to be around very long.”
That’s a dire prediction for a technology that’s reported to save horse’s lives.
For an industry that is itself on wobbly legs, there just doesn’t seem to be much appetite for pricey innovations among America’s horse racing elite.