Guest Post: Thinking about synthetic surfaces after Breeders’ Cup weekend

Jeff Klenner photo - JPG

Jeff Klenner discusses the impact of synthetic racing surfaces following last weekend's Breeders' Cup. (Photo provided by Klenner)

An exciting weekend of horse racing action in the Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita last weekend has left Jeff Klenner musing about the virtues of the synthetic racing surfaces now used at all three “major league” tracks in Southern California: Hollywood Park, Santa Anita Park, and Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

First question about Synthetic Surfaces: Safer than traditional dirt tracks or not?

From what I understand, the evidence thus far is insufficient to support the assertion that synthetic tracks result in fewer catastrophic breakdowns.  However, in the course of 14 Breeders’ Cup races over two days at Santa Anita this past weekend, I don’t recall seeing any horses pulled up nor any horse ambulances on the track the entire time.  That’s an anecdotal observation rather than empirical evidence, but it’s nevertheless somewhat reassuring for a guy like me who still has emotional scars from Go For Wand’s horrific breakdown in the 1990 Distaff (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNltI2p_Mac but beware the gruesome scene).  From my perspective, anything that shows promise in preventing catastrophic breakdowns is worth the investment — regardless of the typical grumblings of most handicappers and protests from some horse owners (like Jess Jackson, owner of Rachel Alexandra).

My hope is that scientific evidence will ultimately validate claims regarding synthetic surfaces being safer than traditional dirt tracks.  That will help spur more tracks (which can afford to do so) to transition to such surfaces.  As they become more common place, there is bound to be less resistance from reluctant neighsayers and so-called “traditionalists” — after all, what track has more embraced tradition throughout its history than Keeneland and, yet, they were one of the first tracks to install a synthetic surface.  It’s true that the horse racing industry has some serious short term issues pertaining to its survival as a result of alternative gambling venues and other competition for the “entertainment dollar.”  Yet, the racing industry’s long term sustainability is still threatened by the possibility of a public relations backlash as a result of further high profile tragedies like those which claimed Ruffian, Go for Wand, and Eight Belles.  Heck, if I’m a dedicated, lifelong fan of the sport and still question my allegiance in the wake of such occurrences, what is the casual sports fan supposed to think?

Second question about Synthetic Surfaces: Promoting true International competition?

The fact that European stables won nearly half of the 14 Breeders’ Cup races surely demonstrates how competitive they have become at challenging American runners on our big championship days of racing.  Conduit (Turf) and Goldikova (Turf Mile) both scored repeat wins in their events this year.  By comparison, when is that last time a horse from the U.S. went and competed in the Prix de l’ Arc de Triomphe or other race of similar status in Europe?  Ironically, prominent owner Jess Jackson supposedly flirted with the idea of sending Curlin to France for the “Arc” a couple of years ago, yet balked at sending Rachel Alexandra to California this year merely due to the synthetic surface at Santa Anita.

Given that two of the European wins in this year’s Breeders’ Cup were on the synthetic dirt surface rather than the turf course, all indications are that the trans-Atlantic shuttle is likely to continue.  In my mind, that is a good thing.  In fact, I would like to see more horses coming from places like Australia, Japan, and South America.  When the racing surface proves to be less of a hindrance to that actually occurring, I consider that a positive development as well.

Third question about Synthetic Surfaces: What is the ultimate impact going to be on the breeding industry?

Since I am very much a Thoroughbred bloodline aficionado, I am fascinated by the possible long term homogeneity effect that standardized synthetic surfaces could render.  There could eventually be less of a differentiation between “dirt sires” and “turf sires”, leaving distance proclivities as the single major factor to consider in planning matings.  How would that impact the worldwide bloodstock market?  How would the breed evolve?  Would some prominent lines (like Mr. Prospector) give way to other lines that garner greater success on synthetic surfaces?  Would the net effect result in greater or lesser overall soundness in the breed?

What are your opinions regarding these three stated issues?  Let’s hear from folks via your comments or through submission of your own guest posts…

About Jeff Klenner:

Jeff started out as a hotwalker and groom at the Detroit-area Thoroughbred tracks (Detroit Race Course and Hazel Park) as a teenager in the 1970’s.  He is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program and has worked in several capacities in the horse racing industry: as Director of Operations at The Downs at Albuquerque and The Downs at Santa Fe (both in NM); as General Manager of Payson Stud (KY) and Payson Park (FL); and as Projects Coordinator at The Association of Racing Commissioners International (KY), in which he was involved in developing the Model Rules of Racing.  He has also been a professor of Organizational Management (at Midway College in KY) and has recently transitioned into the field of law by completing his Juris Doctor degree.  He resides in a suburb of Detroit and remains a dedicated fan of the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry.

Jeff invites you to connect with him on Linked In ( http://www.linkedin.com/in/klenner ) and/or Twitter (@klenner).

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5 Comments

Filed under Commentary, Guest Posts

5 responses to “Guest Post: Thinking about synthetic surfaces after Breeders’ Cup weekend

  1. mibredclaimer

    Jeff,
    I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m a fan of synthetic racing surfaces, but I respect the right of tracks to install them.

    From a live racing standpoint, I can’t stand the smell of Polytrack. On particularly hot days, it makes me sneeze. However, I somewhat enjoy the added dimension it gives to handicapping. I bought Bill Finley’s “Betting Synthetic Surfaces” last year, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. I’m curious to see the insight it offers.

    It will be interesting to see how the smaller tracks are affected if/when artificial surfaces become more commonplace. Clearly, the cost of going synthetic will keep places like Pinnacle and MPM from changing surfaces anytime in the foreseeable future. Will the tracks lacking the funds or ambition to make the switch see horses and trainers that normally couldn’t locate their facilities on a map? Jess Jackson’s got to run his horses somewhere.

    As for the surfaces promoting international competition, the true test of that theory will come at next year’s Breeders’ Cup on the dirt at Churchill Downs.

    First, will the results of the last two years empower the Europeans, etc. to enter their horses, or will the supposed home-field advantage of natural dirt scare them off? Second, how will foreign competitors respond in the wake of their performance? If they have the same positive returns they have at Santa Anita, then the surface was a moot point. If the Americans dominate the dirt races, The Euros may look elsewhere until the Cup is held at another synthetic track.

    Regarding the breeding aspect, if anything, it may further complicate matters. When dealing with dirt, the only difference is in how wet/sloppy it is. Meanwhile, there are no less than four different artificial surfaces in use in North America and countless more likely in development. A horse that flourishes on Tapeta may flounder on Cushion Track. Could this lead to designer bloodlines for each surface? Will the legacies of stallions someday be defined as “Stallion X is a Polytrack sire and Stallion Y is a Pro-Ride sire” the same as successful turf and dirt sires are classified?

    This is a fascinating subject and I thank you for discussing it. Superb post!

  2. ragman

    I wager with trainer intent in mind so if he’s ok with synth so am I. I see horses from Mountaineer and Presque Isle go back and forth and they appear to do ok.

    Is it safe? For Turfway running in the middle of winter with freezing and thawing conditions it cut down on their break-downs and cancellations. Would it help Beulah? Yes. Beulah is quick to cancel and one has to feel for the jockeys and horsemen who try and scratch out a living there in Jan and Feb.
    Last year at Pinnacle a horse who had shown a little potential in Florida gets dropped to the bottom sending up a red flag. Didn’t make it out of the backstretch. Would synth have stopped him from breaking down? Don’t think so.
    In the 50s Hazel Park was so deep that when it came up muddy(heavy) the horses couldn’t run fast enough to do any damage.

    Americans in the Prix. I remember Derby winner Carry Back went without much success. Tom Rolfe also did the same. The year after Tom Rolfe ran in the Prix he came to DRC with Shoemaker and at less than even money ran 2nd to hometown hero…Stanislas, in one of the bigger upsets in Mile history. Over the years there has been a lot of talk about horses going over but it doesn’t happen and probably for good reason.

    You’ve probably seen the trials and tribulations of the local tracks trying to keep their funding and keep operating. Any suggestions how the tracks could be left to operate on their own and just pay a tax to the State. The article I read in the Free Press seemed to make it clear that this will come up again and very soon. Spokeswoman Jennifer Holton, in regards to the Agric. Dept saving 26 jobs, they will stay “for a few weeks while we work out the details of the cuts.” Never Ends.

  3. Tom Schram

    Although I have some disagreements, Jeff wrote a well-thought-out column advocating for the increased use of synthetic race surfaces. Opinions on this subject tend to take on the characteristics of rants and, to his credit, Jeff avoided going there. Yes, most synthetics appear to be safer than many dirt tracks, but as he points out, all the evidence is still not in.

    I was concerned with Jeff’s assertion that synthetics should be more prevalent “regardless of the typical grumblings of most handicappers.” Members of the racing industry – owners, breeders, horsemen, track operators – tend to operate within an insular universe. This is understandable. Racing is their livelihood.

    But it is the handicappers (bettors) who are driving this bus. You can have great restaurant that meets your ideal of a perfect eatery in every way, but if no one comes to dine there, it is destined to fail. Perhaps this way of thinking was acceptable 20 years ago. Back then, you went out the Detroit Race Course or its equivalent and took whatever was on the menu. In this age of advanced deposit wagering, such is no longer the case. If horse players don’t want to wager on synthetics – and many (most?) don’t want to – they can find a dirt track that will accommodate them.

    A second point involves the tradition of the sport. What do we throw out along with the clay and sand? If Churchill Downs switched its surface to synthetics tomorrow and a nice colt won the Kentucky Derby in record time in 2010, would that not somehow unfairly mitigate and diminish the 1:59.2 record of Secretariat in 1973?

    A third short point: The American breeding industry is based on dirt racing. You can argue that this is good or bad, but it is what it is. Jeff sees the idea of a “trans-Atlantic shuttle” bringing horses from around the world to United States tracks as a positive development. Ask the small breeding farm owner what he or she thinks about adjusting track surfaces so that their stock is less competitive.

    I think that the real answer involves making dirt surfaces safer. Some dirt surfaces have the cushions and get the maintenance to make them as safe as synthetics. I am unqualified to make critical distinctions on the hows and whys of this subject (hey, I don’t know how to build an internal-combustion engine, either, but I know when my car is running poorly). There is also the issue of trainers and owners racing sore horses and over-medicating their stock, but those are questions for another day.

    Jeff makes many valid points in his column and kudos to him for addressing the subject. I just think we need to get a good look at the destination before jumping on this bandwagon.

  4. klenner

    Because it relates to the synthetic surface issue, I am providing comments I made at another site regarding the Horse of the Year debate:

    —————–
    My vote would go to Zenyatta. There are various factors that I could hold forward to justify that choice. However, I’ll just focus on the one that I think is most decisive — that Zenyatta put an unbeaten streak on the line and “went for the gusto” in the Classic, while Rachel sat home despite being sound and ready to race.

    Despite Zenyatta’s awesome performance last weekend, perhaps Rachel might have prevailed if she had been there. We’ll never know due to Jess Jackson’s obstinence over the synthetic surface issue (which I found unsportsmanlike). Now Jackson has to lay in the bed he has made… If Zenyatta doesn’t run past that field and Gio Ponti wins the Classic, Rachel is the obvious choice for Horse of the Year. However, given that Zenyatta did everything that was asked of her — while Rachel was sitting on the sideline (aiming to win by default) — I believe that Zenyatta is now the clear winner of Horse of the Year honors.

    Rachel will presumably get her shot to replicate Zenyatta’s feat next year, and I hope she does so in just as vibrant a fashion. But awarding Horse of the Year to a candidate that “sat out” the big dance when everyone else showed up wouldn’t just be unfair, it would be unwarranted.
    —————–

    What are everyone else’s thoughts?

  5. Zoomie Moe Man

    Jeff: To add to your article, I would only offer one further point to ponder. The Breeder’s Cup is the pinnacle of year end horse racing in all stakes classes. The horses running in these races are, for the most part, on top of their game and generally speaking, not running with major ailments. So, I attribute, in part, this to the equation of a lack of breakdowns. Let’s now proceed to the smaller tracks and a relation of their surface and horse ailments. Many horses that shipped in to Pinnacle Race Course from Chicago (Arlington Park) were cripples that couldn’t compete there, where trainers were hoping someone would claim their horse, or they’d sell it so they didn’t have to take it back to Chicago. Many of these horses couldn’t walk after a race at PRC. My point here is that it doesn’t matter and wouldn’t have mattered what racing surface they were on, synthetic or dirt. Their class was something much less than those in the BC. And, that is what you have with the smaller tracks, cheap horses, and we all know cheap horses have something attached to them (in the form of ailment).
    This is not to suggest that stakes horses don’t have ailments and stakes horses don’t breakdown, because they all do. It is the level of ailment that may cause a horse to be dropped to the lower/lowest levels. It may also be that the horse is too slow to get to the lead and too slow to catch anyone (not that competitive).
    All my point is getting at is to compare apples to apples when discussing center stage stakes races and breakdowns to bottom level claimers at smaller tracks. And, one final thought on breeding. There are known stallions that provide known traits in their off-spring, similar to what caused the stallion to stop racing. They are passed on. That definitely figures into the equation, more from a soundness standpoint versus the type of track surface the horse can race on.

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