Racing Symposium Panel Participants Approve of Synthetic Surfaces

Synthetic racing surfaces were given a resounding vote of confidence from racetrack executives and track superintendents Dec. 6, at the University of Arizona's Symposium on Racing and Gaming.

The panel, moderated by Churchill Downs racing communications vice president John Asher, consisted of Robert Elliston, president and CEO of Turfway Park; Craig Fravel, executive vice president of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club; Javier Barajas, track superintendent at Arlington Park; and Mike Young, track superintendent at Keeneland. All are associated with tracks that utilize the Polytrack artificial surface.

(The other synthetic surfaces installed at major North American tracks are Tapeta Footings and Cushion Track. Synthetic surfaces were the subject of a Dec. 8 special edition of The Blood-Horse magazine.)

As the first track to install a synthetic surface, Turfway has been the "guinea pig" for the concept, said Elliston, noting that drastic temperature and other climate changes at the Northern Kentucky track made it a "vigorous Polytrack laboratory."

Elliston cited statistics showing that the biggest advantage of Polytrack over the previous dirt main track has been a decrease in catastrophic breakdowns. Turfway experienced 24 such incidents during the final year with the conventional surface, a figure that fell to three during the first fall year with Polytrack.

As the number of fatalities has increased to 14 over the past year, Elliston said it is important to remember that there are many factors that affect catastrophic injuries.

"We have created an unreasonable expectations about injuries," Elliston said of the positive experience with Polytrack. "Injuries will occur. Unfortunately, they will happen. It is going to happen. We have to have the dialogue we're having--we have to have reasonable expectations. I may be at fault and others may be at fault when we talk about the decrease in injuries, but we have to do it through a filter that is reasonable."

Turfway has also had increased average field sizes, which in turn has resulted in wagering increases during five of the seven race meets conducted since installation of Polytrack, Elliston said. Also, the artificial surface has decreased the number of weather related cancellations, has allowed the track to be used for training year-round, and decreased maintenance costs, the track official said.

"I can tell you I am a huge proponent," Elliston said of the surface.

Fravel, whose Southern California track was criticized for the slow race times during this year's 43-day race meet--the first with Polytrack--said the new surface also led to larger field sizes and decreased the number of injuries in horses racing and training at the track.

He cited statistics showing that in 2007 there were six catastrophic injuries among the 10,265 incidents of "strenuous exercise," a category that groups morning workouts and afternoon races. By comparison, in 2006 there were 14 fatal injuries from 8,132 incidents of strenuous exercise.

"At the end of the day we had more competitive racing and bigger fields," Fravel concluded. "I am not saying it is the best thing for every race track, but I do believe going forward it is the best thing for Del Mar."

An ancillary benefit of Polytrack was that horses racing or training at Del Mar were able to remain in training once they left the track, Fravel said.

"For us to send horses out of Del Mar in better condition than when they got there was important to us," Fravel said, noting that there were about 1,000 more workouts at the track in 2007 when compared with the same meet a year ago.

While there was consensus that racing is safer and economically enhanced by use of synthetic surfaces, some problems exist.

The main issue is the effect of temperature changes on the Polytrack material, which can result in differences in the track's makeup from day to day and in some cases from morning to afternoon. As a result, the tracks are also continuing to learn more about how much maintenance is required for Polytrack.

The bottom line is that "it is so much easier to take care of," Young said.

Despite the slow race times during the first meet with Polytrack, Del Mar officials and trainers agreed that they would not tweak with the surface and would wait until the meet was over to determine what adjustments are needed before 2008.

"One of the things we have to work on between 2007 and 2008 is the speed of the racetrack," Fravel said. "Del Mar was sort of an anomaly as synthetic surfaces go (with the slower race times), but I am very confident at the end of the day we will have a very competitive racetrack that is fair to the horses and to the racing fans and players."

Regardless of the pros and cons of Polytrack or any other artificial surface, Fravel said there is no question it is a step in the right direction for the well-being of racing.

"I think all artificial surfaces are a huge step forward for the industry," Fravel said.

(Originally published at BloodHorse.com.)  

About the Author

Ron Mitchell/The Horse

Ron Mitchell is Online Managing Editor for The Blood-Horse magazine. A Lexington native, Mitchell joined The Blood-Horse after serving in editorial capacities with The Thoroughbred Record and Thoroughbred Times, specializing in business and auction aspects of the industry, and was editor-in-chief of the award-winning Horsemen’s Journal. As online managing editor, Mitchell works closely with The Blood-Horse news editor and other departments to make sure the website content is the most thorough and accurate source for all Thoroughbred news, results, videos, and data.

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