The Kentucky Derby

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Synthetic Dirt Continues to Confuse Kentucky Derby Handicappers

May 01, 2009 02:02 PM
by Denis Cummings
With many of the horses in this year’s Kentucky Derby accustomed to running on synthetic dirt, fans are left to guess how these horses will adjust to Churchill Downs’ dirt track.

Horsemen, Handicappers Unsure of How to Evaluate Synthetic Dirt Races

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Handicapping the Kentucky Derby, with its large fields of inexperienced horses, has always been difficult, but the rise of synthetic dirt tracks in the past few years has turned the Derby into even more of a guessing game.

Synthetic dirt surfaces—a wax-coated combination of sand, rubber and synthetic fibers—are softer than real dirt and more forgiving on the horses’ legs. The first track to install a synthetic surface, Turfway Park in 2005, saw a drastic reduction in catastrophic injuries, down to three from 24 in the previous year.

Barbaro’s fatal injury in the 2006 Preakness Stakes brought national attention to the issue of horse safety and encouraged the switch to synthetic dirt. In 2006, Keeneland became the highest-profile track to make the switch, and the state of California mandated that all its tracks do the same.

Though the synthetic dirt is intended to mimic real dirt, many horses perform differently on each surface, and many horsemen and handicappers treat synthetics and dirt as two distinct surfaces. Bill Mott, trainer of Hold Me Back, believes that “track surface is the biggest aspect in trying to put horses in races they can win, with distance a close second,” according to the Louisville Journal-Courier.
I Want Revenge, the Derby morning-line favorite, is a different horse on synthetics and dirt. After starting his career 1-of-6 on California’s synthetic surfaces, he ran to easy victories in his two races on real dirt.

Trainer Jeff Mullins commented, “On synthetic, he holds his head really low and his knees come real high, but on dirt he holds his head straight out and throws his feet straight out and is more fluid.”

It is difficult to predict how a horse that has run primarily on synthetics will adjust to the real dirt at Churchill Downs. And with many Derby prep races run on synthetics and three horses—including second favorite Pioneerof the Nile—never having run on dirt, handicapping the Derby has turned into guesswork.

“Until you have a horse who handles traditional dirt, if they haven’t raced on it, you just don’t know,” said Todd Pletcher, trainer of three Derby horses.

For some in the industry, this is unacceptable. D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of four Derby winners, said this week, “I’m not a synthetic person. I think it’s caused a nightmare for the bettors. The very lifeblood of our industry is the gambling public, and I think they’ve been put at such a disadvantage trying to sort this thing out. I think it will run its course and maybe in a couple of years they’ll dig them all up and get back to natural dirt.”

Analysis: Are synthetic dirt surfaces safer?

Synthetic dirt tracks are advertised as being safer for horses and causing drops in fatal breakdowns. Studies of tracks that have installed synthetic surfaces have found that the number of deaths has decreased after the surface change.

Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for California, told The Blood-Horse, “From 2004 until the installation of the synthetic tracks, there were 3.09 racing fatalities per 1,000 starts in California. After installing the synthetic tracks, this number decreased to 1.87 fatalities per 1,000 starts.”

Handicapper Andrew Beyer, an outspoken opponent of synthetic tracks, argued in a Daily Racing Form chat that the numbers can be misleading. “Tracks were installing new, state-of-the-art $10 million racing surfaces and comparing them with dirt strips that had been around for 50 years,” he wrote. “There are plenty of dirt tracks with excellent safety records—Saratoga, for example.”

Saratoga Race Course did not have a fatal breakdown during its 36-day meet last year, part of an impressive safety record for the New York Racing Association. Its three racetracks, all of which have dirt surfaces, averaged just 1.3 racing fatalities per 1,000 starts.

“The record could provide evidence that properly maintained dirt tracks offer comparable or even better protection than synthetic tracks when it comes to preventing racehorse injuries,” wrote the Daily Gazette (Schenectady, N.Y.).

The Jockey Club is leading a study on horse injuries and fatalities with the Equine Injury Database System, a national database collecting injury data from 78 U.S. tracks. The database seeks to “identify markers for horses at increased risk of injury,” and may help researchers determine whether one surface is distinctively safer than another. Until then, there will continue to be a debate over the effects of synthetic turf on injuries.

“Although there is not much data available, the data collected indicates there is a lowering of catastrophic injury on synthetic surfaces,” said Dr. C. Wayne McIlwraith, of Colorado State University’s Equine Orthopaedic Research Center, to The Blood-Horse. “However, differences in synthetic tracks, weather conditions, maintenance, and where horses have previously trained make it a complicated issue to analyze.”

Reference: Synthetic dirt manufacturers

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