TrackNotes

By Thomas Chambers

There was no "To be continued" attached to last week's TrackNotes, but that's what this week's installment will be as reaction has been received and we've seen a fairly even-handed new treatment of the subject by a mass media outlet. Imagine that.

George Ofman:
  • Dis and Dat

  • My contention is that some of the tracks that have installed artificial racing surfaces to replace dirt acted in a capricious, ill-informed manner and may be putting jockeys, in particular, in more danger than they were in before.

    A paradox is that while methodical information-gathering and study on the subject seems lacking, there is some solid anecdotal evidence that should be listened to. The spin from racing officials is maddening. It's also morally appalling, as two jockeys just in this summer's Arlington meet lay paralyzed from racing accidents.

    Former jockey Robert Colton, who has been an advocate in the Jockey's Guild for better insurance, supported my conclusion that drugs in race horses are probably a bigger individual problem than the surfaces.

    "There are too many variables in the equation," Colton wrote to TrackNotes. "For example, the first year stats for Turfway's synthetic fails to mention the drastic change in drug rules that year. Kentucky went from the most lenient (almost non-existent) rules to finally catching up with the rest of the industry. I personally feel the drastic reduction in fatalities the first year was due more to less drugs than the new surface."

    Like a juggler, Colton kept the issues in the air in mentioning the banning of steroids - and the efforts of trainers to find ways over and around the drug restriction.

    "The banning of 'roids has not been mentioned or factored," Colton wrote. "All one had to do was stand anywhere on a backside and watch these raging Schwarzeneggers walk to and from the track. Two-year fillies looked like older studs. Way too much muscle mass to be supported by a still developing skeletal system. It was such a pleasure last summer to get on horses that weren't trying to serve me as their lunch. What percent has the banning contributed to safer racing?"

    Colton's contribution to the anecdotal evidence: "My career ended on January 24th this year due to a horse breaking a shoulder and falling on me, an equine injury seldom seen decades ago, but now more frequent."

    The dirtiest story in racing - drugs - plays on, but the issues are intertwined.

    Clare Fawdry, a frequent contributor to blogs in the United Kingdom, commented on the differences between the U.S. and Europe, where turf racing is as dominant as dirt racing is here. He explained how synthetic surfaces are used primarily only for training there: "We have separate facilities for racing and training in this country, we don't ask the same circuit to do both jobs."

    Maintenance, Fawdry said, is a major effort. "If you visit any synthetic in the UK you will see it being worked between races or jumping classes, and the gallops at Newmarket have machines going up them several times a day."

    We know that custom maintenance may only now be becoming a norm here.

    "All the main (synthetic track) suppliers give you a maintenance programme and DVD, recommend purchase of specific machinery, and a back-up service," Fawdry wrote to TrackNotes. "On any of the UK manufacturers main websites, the maintenance aspect is pretty well 'in your face'."

    It doesn't appear as if Arlington could have known how the PolyTrack surface would change after a few long meets. Santa Anita was badly, improperly installed and Del Mar's surface started doing things they never anticipated in the heat of the afternoon.

    And Claire Novak, posted on ESPN.com, provides a classic portrait of the contradictions that are inevitable as the racing industry refuses to undertake a comprehensive examination of itself.

    Point
    Regarding veteran rider and Chicago fixture Jerry LaSala: "One day he left the gate on a runner, only to have the horse prop about 40 yards away. He was thrown to the ground. The impact was like nothing he'd ever felt. 'Let me tell you something,' (LaSala) says. 'It was like hitting cement. With dirt or sand, there's a little bit of give or slide. With this, there's nothing'. "

    Contradiction
    Arlington Park President Roy Arnold: "It is also clear that the major exposure of jockeys to the risk of death or serious injury is caused by the catastrophic breakdown of horses."

    Michael Straight's injuries came as he hit the deck when his horse clipped heels. Rene Douglas' horse did the same thing, and then fell on top of him. But who knows how much their injuries were exacerbated by the hard surface?

    Point
    Arnold again: "We think we're going in the right direction, and we're committed to that. We're not going to be dissuaded, we're not going to be intimidated, and we are not going to go backwards."

    Contradiction
    They don't know what they don't know. "Slowly but surely, we're building up a database which is allowing us to start associating performance with certain characteristics of the material," Arnold says.

    But LaSala seems to understand that they don't know: "I don't want to see trouble between the riders and Arlington, and I know overall they went out and tried to put this track in for the safety of the horses and to prevent catastrophic injuries, so it's tough," he says. "I wish we had the answer. I don't feel like anyone has the answer. We're hoping they can figure out something to do or do something different; we're hoping."

    Point
    "From a weather station that generates automatic information recorded into a database to temperature sensors on the surface and at depth in the material, Arlington is working to collect detailed information on its' oval. Every maintenance procedure is recorded. Performance data is analyzed. Samples of the surface are taken away for analysis, then experts search for deterioration or change in the track."

    Assuming this information, which seems right out of Arlington's press office, is true, why do they seem oblivious, or unlistening, to the changes in the track?

    Contradiction
    "I'm definitely pro-synthetic," says trainer Anthony Mitchell. "When they put it in here the first year, when it was new, it was spongy, it was good. But what we've got on this track, this year, is dead. Bottom line, something needs to be done with the particular surface that's out there now, it needs to be rejuvenated. And I just hope at the end of the meet that something can be resolved that will not jeopardize Illinois racing next year. That's my hope because I love it here."

    I believe that Churchill Downs Inc., led by major stockholder and former Arlington owner Richard Duchossois, and, by corporate extension, Arnold, are in the old "save face" mode. For one, the decision to install it in the first place and, secondly, the estimated $10 million it cost to do so.

    A friend of mine who has and does work in the local racing industry, put it very simply.

    "The reason they had problems at Arlington is that they never took up the track. They never ripped it up in the off-season to check it and fix it and then lay down a better track," he said.

    It's been different at Hawthorne. For years, Hawthorne had to take up its track in order to run a summer harness meet, which requires a different, harder surface for the sulkies to roll on. And then they would rebuild it for the Thoroughbred meet.

    It was ironic to see an industry that moves at a glacial pace leap, without forethought, to install these surfaces. They're paying a price.

    But then, there are lots of prices being paid in Thoroughbred horse racing. Rene Douglas and Michael Straight prove that out.

    -

    Thomas Chambers is the Beachwood's man on the rail. He brings you Track Notes every Friday. He welcomes your comments.

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