TrackNotes: Fake Plastic Dirt

By Thomas Chambers

Some things at the Chicago Park District never change.

Saw the item where the Park District basically told everybody to "shut up, we (lay new sod before the first Bears game) every year." And every year, the Bears' playing surface is one of the worst in the league.

In reading about efforts to get a Walter Payton statue erected at the spaceship, we remember the surface Walter played on. I think they called in Magikist to make that green concrete so shiny the Vikings tried to tackle Sweetness' reflection. It hurt just to watch those games.

Only quality thinkers in sports care about playing surfaces. Elton and Billy could not have done any good to the hallowed green of Wrigley, and I do wonder how Toyota Park can stand up to all of its special events when maintaining a top-class soccer pitch is extremely difficult. Seems that the powers at Comiskey Park won't let their lawn get trampled, even keeping the Cub Scouts on the warning track.

And, alas, Arlington Park has not been different, first failing to maintain a dirt course as good as its turf course, and then biting at a snake oil solution in an effort to "fix things."

The issue of racing surfaces rears its ugly head once more as we begin to see some evidence that PolyTrack and CushionRide and ProRide, fancy names for wax, sand, plastic and lint, are not the beautiful solution the salesmen and easy marks thought they'd be.

In these parts, we had a big splash in the Tribune this week which headlines and subheads and conclusions ran amok, colliding into a horseplop of contradiction.

For example, the paper's subhead said "Arlington's synthetic track helps keep horses healthy, but 2 jockeys are paralyzed." But the horses are not necessarily healthier, many running with aches and pains like they always have. They're just trading dirt surface pains for synthetic surface pains. More on that later.

To recap, after a spate of breakdowns in 2006 and 2007, racing officials and executives in several venues fell all over themselves to install artificial surfaces. After 22 breakdowns in 2006 (there was a bit of a panic in the general media because the majority of these happened in the first weeks of the meet), Arlington first did quick, secret repairs on the last turn, where most of the breakdowns occurred, and then went fully synthetic in time for the 2007 meet.

Meanwhile, after similar occurrences in California, particularly Del Mar, the California Horse Racing Board mandated artificial surfaces for all tracks in that state. Turfway in Kentucky and Woodbine in Canada had already pioneered PolyTrack in North America, primarily as a way to keep their tracks viable in the fall and spring.

Synthetic surfaces have generally been a bane to handicappers. Betting angles can take years to develop, and with horses hopscotching between turf, dirt and synthetic, wagering really became a crapshoot. We had to wait, and still do, until there was some empirical evidence upon which to base conclusions.

Don't get me wrong. We hurt just as much as anyone over a Ruffian, a Barbaro, a George Washington, an Eight Belles. But what are the true facts, the true trends?

As with everything else, you have to piece it together by following the game and its press. And, thankfully, scanning the blogs and forums of the Internet.

In the accidents which paralyzed two jockeys, Michael Straight's horse clipped heels and went down on August 26, and he fell to the ground. Rene Douglas' horse clipped heels and went down in May, and the horse fell on top of him. Two different types of accidents. Keep that in mind.

Let's try to find a common theme.

* From the Tribune: "'The jockeys' concern was that the surface wasn't tested for humans when they fall on it,' said Jerry LaSala, a rider as well as the local representative and national treasurer of The Jockeys' Guild."

"They're not scared to ride. They're scared if they fall. They're wondering if they're going to be the next Rene Douglas or Michael Straight . . . Two guys in four months [on the synthetic Polytrack surface], that's a scary feeling."

From California's North County Times: "The fashionable thing is to blame (Del Mar) track superintendent Steve Wood, who had no experience with Polytrack when it was installed."

* From California trainer Darrell Vienna: "Contacted yesterday by phone, Vienna said he had gone from synthetics skeptic - 'Because I didn't think we had enough knowledge about what we were getting into' - to believer over the first season of Polytrack at Del Mar, when injuries, fatal and non, went down dramatically."

Seems Vienna's changed his mind again. "Vienna talked about the boastful claims: 'They're no good,' Vienna told Blood-Horse magazine, referring to synthetic surfaces. 'The promises at the beginning were (that) they were safe, consistent, maintenance-free, and all-weather. They are not safe, they're not maintenance-free, they're not consistent, and they can't take water. None of it is true'."

The theme here is that racing officials had absolutely no idea what they were dealing with, or were going to be dealing with, in their zeal to install these surfaces. Turfway experienced a sharp drop in breakdowns in its first synthetic year, but that was to be expected in the switch from Turfway's notoriously dicey, half-frozen track, as depicted by trainer Wayne Catalano. And without a clue, racing officials were adamantly telling us that the new surfaces would absolutely be safer, now and forever.

"The Jockeys' Guild's national manager, Terry Meyocks, said there were concerns because of the injuries to Douglas and Straight, but he said it is too early to reach conclusions about synthetic surfaces."

Meyocks is wrong. It is most certainly beginning to look like breakdowns are reaching their statistical norm, as witnessed at Arlington and Del Mar this season.

Generally a combination of waxed sand and rubber particles, with cut-up thin telephone wire placed on top of a supposedly sophisticated drainage system that includes asphalt, synthetic surfaces further confound through their variable behaviors from track to track. Big heat wave in Southern California this summer. While morning workouts may have been tolerable, are you telling me that stuff didn't just about melt in the heat of 3 p.m.? It's more moderate at Arlington, with temperatures generally more consistent from morning to afternoon. I would say these are conclusions that can be made.

Even Arlington ballyhooed the fact that they found this new rake they could pull behind a tractor that would make the surface more like dirt. Woodbine last Saturday announced on its simulcast feed that is was doing something - the terminology escapes me - to their course between most of the races instead of only twice a day.

Another is that many trainers say that while a good artificial surface may be kinder to horses, especially in morning workouts, horses are experiencing different kinds of aches and pains such as deep tissue injuries and soreness in their hinds. They're trading shin splints from lousy dirt tracks for muscle soreness from synthetics. And I think one huge dirty secret is the effect of the kickback on both horse and rider. How on earth can it be good for them to inhale or ingest these fibers kicked up from the horse in front?

And, when what appeared to be a properly installed surface at Del Mar two years ago reduced the horses to running slower than molasses, they "tweaked" the track to bring up speeds. That means a harder surface, less cushion. A harder surface for a horse's legs and a harder surface for a jockey to fall on. And who's to say Arlington's surface didn't get harder just through wear and tear?

So in the true American way, they try to throw technology at the problem. Is there anyone out there who can explain to me why tracks like Arlington or Del Mar can't install and maintain the very best and safest dirt tracks? They seem to do fine at Saratoga, Belmont and Churchill Downs. Even Aqueduct. Comiskey Park's Roger Bossard teaches his kids and spreads his knowledge. No dirt track gurus around here?

Arlington, especially, just gave up on the notion of a quality dirt track. AP President Roy Arnold goes all corporate hold-harmless in the Tribune: "Arnold and others in the industry say that riding thoroughbred racehorses 12 months a year is akin to playing Russian roulette. Sooner or later a horse, which weighs more than 1,000 pounds, will go down while traveling in close quarters.

"If a human body comes off a horse at 35 m.p.h., what as a track do you want me to do to prevent injury?" Arnold said. "The way to make jockeys safer is reduce the threat of injury to the horse."

Arnold came to Arlington with virtually no horse racing experience. I'm pretty sure our own Captain Parmenter ran the motor pool or the supply hut for the Marines before being assigned to Fort Arlington. I think we might have a new horse name: Condescending Roy.

"Data released in 2008 from 2,235 injury reports showed virtually no difference in the fatality rates for horses racing on synthetic surfaces compared with conventional dirt. The information was presented at a safety summit at Keeneland," the Tribune reported. If statistics are starting to even out, then what gives?

My biggest reasons for breakdowns boil down to this: the sturdiness of the breed and drugs.

It's another research study to talk about drugs. But if a horse gets just a little spacey while going 40 miles per hour, even though he's not going to test positive, I've gotta think he could possibly take a bad step.

Strength and stamina are being bred out of Thoroughbreds in favor of speed. Speed that makes money in the breeding shed. You're starting to see more and more short sprints on all surfaces and fewer races at the "classic" distances of 1.25 miles or more. The money is in breeding, not in racing the horse. So you make a quick splash as a three-year-old and then head to breeding. It's hard to believe a horse like Big Brown, bad feet and all, should be so eagerly bred with such an obvious drawback.

Rachel Alexandra owner Jess Jackson is being criticized for not taking his special filly to the Breeders Cup and its synthetic surface. Poor sport, they say. But until he tells us exactly what he's thinking, besides his general disdain for the "plastic," isn't it also reasonable to believe maybe he doesn't like the way racing is going with synthetics and has decided to take a stand? I won't speculate on Mr. Jackson's thoughts, but I like what he's doing.

So while the industry bickers about the obviously flawed synthetic surfaces, a main reason, breeding, is being ignored. A lot of bettors, large and small, refuse to wager on synthetic races. Or on races thrown into confusion by a hodgepodge field of synthetic and dirt and even turf runners.

We'll be treated to the Breeders Cup on the fake stuff this fall for the second consecutive year. Wonderful.

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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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