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TrackNotes: Surface Truths

Now I'm really confused.

Are synthetic racing surfaces safer than dirt? Or not?

Since about 2006, anybody associated with the Thoroughbred game has wondered the same. The various formulas of carpet fibers, sand, wax, silicon and cut-up telephone wire were touted as salvation for horses. They'd vastly reduce the number of fatal racing injuries.

After years of protestations that there just wasn't enough data, we now have two studies - one of which admits there's not enough data available - that provide no real illumination on the topic.

First, we have a statistical analysis of the Equine Injury Database that tells us there is no statistical difference between dirt, synthetic and even turf when it comes to fatal injuries.

As Bloodhorse's Tom LaMarra reports, "The number of catastrophic injuries per 1,000 starts was 2.04; by surface the figures were 1.78 for turf, 1.78 for synthetic, and 2.14 for dirt, which had a much higher number of starts."

But we've been told to look away from the curtain. "This will take time," said Dr. Tim Parkin of the University of Glasgow in Scotland. "There are no quick answers. We need to consider (multi-factor models), but we probably need at least three years of full data."

And we also had this little nugget of non-speak, straight out of the Sergeant Schultz School of Spokesmanship. "We still can't say one surface is safer than another even if there was a statistically significant difference," said Dr. Mary Scollay-Ward, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission who oversees the EID for The Jockey Club.

But wait, there's more.

The Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association asked racing data juggernaut Equibase to analyze race charts from 2009. The criteria were rather kicky, focusing on the percentage of career-ending did-not-finish instances where horses did not finish their last race in 2009 and have not trained or raced in 2010.

It was 0.39% of such instances on dirt, 0.19% on synthetic and 0.35% on turf. So, you say, that's twice as much on dirt as on synthetic, proving synthetic's safety.

Heed the disclaimers first. "Equibase was retained by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association to run queries against the Equibase database and provide a set of facts pertaining to 'career-ending did-not-finish' starts," said Equibase president and COO Hank Zeitlin.

Pardon me if it seems TOBA went to Equibase with a request to rustle up some numbers to prove some point it might want to make.

I would suggest that issues such as rampant medication, lazy dirt track maintenance, bred-in fragility of the horses and even too much racing are also quite important. But that's just me.

*

We here in Chicago have firsthand experience, although it comes wrapped in both paper and plastic. At Arlington Park, which installed Poly Track in 2007 in what I've always called a kneejerk PR reaction to a spate of fatal breakdowns, the quality of racing is clearly affected by chintzy purses, compared to premier tracks and tracks propped up by slots revenue. AP's racing is clearly second-tier, or perhaps worse.

From a handicapper's point of view, it seems each race is a rerun, filled with clones with dubious racing lines. The chalky favorites gain the lead on the turn with a middle favorite in the mix. Closing seems anathema on this track, so it's deja vu in so many races, resulting in low payouts and little fun.

So the horses are less talented and the track resists a variety of styles.

Probably why Arlington is pretty much off my radar.

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Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes (nearly) every Friday. He welcomes your comments.

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