April 2014 Issue - page 4

Page 4
May 2014
Photo courtesy of Keeneland Racecourse
by Terry Conway
It was touted as the gold stan-
dard. It would stand up to a deluge
of rain and all sorts of harsh
weather. It would take away track
bias and require a limited amount
of maintenance. By early 2008,
synthetic surfaces for everyday
racing had been installed at nine
tracks across North America.
The engineered racing surfac-
es were represented by names like
Polyturf, Cushion Track, Pro-Ride
and Tapeta. Six years later, safety-
wise, the racing surfaces have
lived up to their billing. The latest
study released in early April by
the Equine Injury Database of The
Jockey Club showed that synthetic
surfaces were far safer than dirt
or turf, producing proportionally
many fewer fatal breakdowns.
The high profile and cata-
strophic breakdowns of Barbaro
in the 2008 Preakness and Eight
Belles, who broke both front
ankles after the wire in the 2008
Kentucky Derby, spurred the
rapid transition to synthetics. The
rush to judgment was especially
swift in California. In 2006, the
California Horse Racing Board
mandated its four venues install
the new all-weather racetracks.
But not long after being in-
stalled, the artificial surfaces piv-
oted from a source of intrigue to
a litany of complaints. It was too
slow. It favored stretch runners.
It left gamblers bewildered which
led to a sharp decrease in betting
handles. The surfaces lessened
the concussion factor when com-
pared to running on conventional
dirt, but some trainers said it led
to instances of hind end, soft tis-
sue and muscle injuries.
The movement stalled in
California. Three years after the
Pro-Ride surface was installed, it
was under siege by Santa Anita’s
colony of trainers who cited a
string of maddening maintenance
problems. Seasonal changes and
daily temperature changes affect
the surfaces significantly. The
new surfaces also short-circuited
Era of U.S. Synthetic
Tracks Fading Away
the calling card of California dirt
tracks—speed, speed and more
speed. Owners and trainers grum-
bled that for generations American
horses had been bred to excel on
dirt and by switching the tracks to
synthetics those vaunted bloodlines
were turned upside down.
Santa Anita bailed in 2010
and converted to a conventional
dirt track. In mid-February, Del
Mar Racetrack confirmed it will
scrap its Polytrack once the 2014
meet is over. Then on April 2
came the blockbuster announce-
ment that Keeneland Race Course
will be switching its main race
track from the Polytrack material
to a “state-of-the-art” dirt surface.
Michael Dickinson was
home at his gorgeous farm and
training center set on the northern
stretches of the Chesapeake Bay
in North East, Maryland when he
heard the Keeneland report. Dick-
inson had begun tinkering with
the all-weather concept back in
1992. Working with 52 different
formulas, he whittled them down
and installed the first Tapeta track
at the Fair Hill Training Center in
the summer of 2006.
Dickinson called Keeneland
reverting to dirt a dark day for the
“It’s a disaster, the sport is
moving backward,” Dickinson
emphatically stated. “You know
Bill Casner won the Dubai World
Cup in 2009 with Well Armed and
the 2008 Travers with Colonel
John. Both of those horses did the
majority of their training on syn-
thetic surfaces which helped them
to keep moving forward. Let me
read you something from Bill.”
“‘I struggle to understand the
thought process behind chang-
ing to a surface that you know
is going to increase fatalities,’”
said Casner, a former partner in
Kentucky’s Winstar Farm opera-
tion and an outspoken advocate
for synthetic surface.
“‘When a horse breaks down
any time, it’s a terrible thing. But
when a horse breaks down in
front of the grandstand in the af-
ternoon, two things happen: peo-
ple will turn around and leave the
track in droves, never to return,
and a jockey will go down and be
injured to some degree, whether
it’s a bruise or paralysis. When
there are agendas placed above
the safety of horses and riders, to
me, it is unconscionable.’”
Safety Numbers Impressive
The April Jockey Club report
showed that the iconic Keeneland
Racecourse was probably one of
the safest in the nation—with just
one fatality from 2,323 start-
ers. Over the past five years it’s
less than one fatality (.97) for
every 1,000 starters. It had been
a pioneer and vocal advocate of
the all-weather surfaces. It was so
bullish, Keeneland brass part-
nered with British synthetic sur-
face manufacturer Martin Collins
with an idea of rolling out more
and more of these tracks. That
partnership was severed in 2012.
“This is not a decision that
we have undertaken lightly,” said
Keeneland president and CEO Bill
Thomason. “From the outset of
the synthetic surface installation
in 2006, we have always said that
this is a journey and not a destina-
tion. The racing landscape has
changed, and for that reason we
have an obligation to our horse-
men and to our fans to evaluate
where the industry is going.”
Today, the synthetic surface
project for racing purposes in the
U. S. appears to be over. Un-
able to overcome the U. S. racing
industry’s historic alliance with
dirt, no new synthetic surfaces have
been installed in North America in
seven years. With a reported cost
of roughly $10 million per track
installation, there are just five syn-
thetic surfaces left: Arlington Park,
Golden Gate Fields, Woodbine,
Turfway Park and Presque Isle.
“Our track superintendent
Bob Headley keeps track of the
temperature and moisture each
day which helps him plan his
daily maintenance schedule,” said
Debbie Howells, the Director of
Racing at Presque Isle.
“Our horsemen wanted the
Tapeta track; it’s easier for horses
to return, less strain on them. It’s
had an excellent performance
and safety record. The horsemen
paid for part of the installation.
When we add new fibers and
components, they pay part of that
too. We’re very happy with the
synthetic surface.”
Wise Dan Benefited
Charlie LoPresti is the
trainer of two-time Horse of the
Year Wise Dan. His brilliant
7-year-old gelding scored his
sixth graded-stakes victory at
Keeneland—a track record—in
the Makers 46 Mile at Keeneland
on April 11.
“There is no doubt in my
mind that Wise Dan has benefited
from this track,” LoPresti said.
“If the Polytrack wasn’t here I
don’t think I would have had
Successful Dan back as many
times as I have either. I wouldn’t
be able to get any of my horses
ready to run in the spring, be-
cause we couldn’t train if it was
dirt. On the whole, for what I do
and how I train, I think the syn-
thetic track is a good track.”
Dickinson was asked about
Keeneland’s proposed “state-of-
the art dirt track.” Does it not get
muddy or frozen and hard as a
“People say dirt is dirt, but
finding superior dirt isn’t easy,”
Dickinson replied. “Santa Anita
spent lots of money getting sam-
ple dirt from all over the world
for their conversion. The kick-
back to horses and riders is as
bad or worse as any track in the
country. The fatalities rates are
up significantly. Compare that
with our Tapeta at Golden Gate,
the horsemen and riders love it.
They’re not taking it out.”
Graham Motion’s horses train
regularly over the Tapeta surface
at the Fair Hill Training Center.
Stable star Animal Kingdom scored
on dirt in the 2012 Kentucky Derby
and on Tapeta in the $10 Million
Dubai World Cup in 2013.
Proper Maintenance Key
“The biggest problem I have
is that people overlook the statis-
tics about fatalities,” said Motion,
who earned $5.8 million in purses
in 2013. “The synthetic track we
have at Fair Hill, we’ve main-
tained it in the way we’ve been
told to maintain it. We’ve never
had a problem. The synthetic track
problems come down to proper
maintenance or upkeep, or that
they hadn’t been put in right in the
beginning. I’m stunned by all the
negativity toward these tracks.”
Dickinson was a highly
regarded trainer who trained
eight Grade-1 winners, including
two-time Breeders’ Cup win-
ner DaHoss. He concocted the
Tapeta all-weather surface at his
Maryland farm. It is a precise mix
of sand, rubber and fiber layered
four to seven inches deep over a
two-inch layer of porous blacktop
above stone.
Tapeta Footings Co. was es-
tablished in 2007 for the manufac-
turing of the synthetic surface that
Dickinson installed at four thor-
oughbred racetracks and training
facilities in ten different countries.
The Tapeta surfaces at Presque Isle
near Erie, PA and Golden Gate in
northern California have been rec-
ognized as two of the best synthetic
surfaces in the country.
Swimming against the tide,
Dickinson would like to see one
of the ten mid-Atlantic tracks
convert to Tapeta. He suggests
Philadelphia Park’s turf course as
a good candidate.
“It’s all about the mainte-
nance, whether it be synthetic,
dirt or turf, and should not be
hard or loose and cuppy,” Dickin-
son explained in a lengthy phone
conversation. “You want it tight
on the top and soft underneath.
The top two inches should be
quite firm so a horse can grab
hold of it. Synthetic tracks that
had problems had it upside down,
soft on the top, tight underneath.
Scientists did scores of studies
and told us that.”
“We’ve come a long way with
these surfaces over the past eight
years or so. Tapeta has an active
R&D operation so we’re constantly
tweaking it. The synthetic surfaces
we put in last year in Scotland and
Australia are the best we’ve ever
done. There are incredibly safe
tracks to race and train over.”
(Continued on page 24)
Keeneland Racecourse announced April 2 that it will join a host of American tracks that are ditching
their synthetic surfaces. The most recent installation of a synthetic surface in the US was seven years
ago, and only five tracks, including Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle Downs, retain the footing.
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