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).