California courses race to go artificial

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Like politics, social niceties and the English language, horseracing has traditionally displayed a clear transatlantic divide despite common roots on both sides of the ocean. To the west lies the realm of relentlessly fast American dirt racing; to the east, the more tactical but slower European turf.

But now the spread of artificial racing surfaces, most notably one called Polytrack, could narrow the gap. First used in 2001 as a racing surface at Lingfield, a racecourse in southern England, Polytrack will be in use at three British tracks by the end of this month. However, it is in the US where this mixture of wax-coated silica sand, polypropylene fibre and recycled rubber is being embraced with most enthusiasm.

Europeans think of the surface as dirt, while Americans say it plays more like turf. More important than racing style, though, is the issue of safety. So say riders at Turfway Park, a Kentucky racetrack that adopted the surface in September. Since then “catastrophic breakdowns” – injuries resulting in death – have decreased significantly even as the number of runners has increased, say track officials.

The evidence on safety was so compelling that last month the California Horse Racing Board unanimously approved a motion to require all five leading thoroughbred tracks in the state – Del Mar, Hollywood Park, Santa Anita Park, Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows – to install an artificial surface such as Polytrack by the end of next year or forfeit racing dates.

Polytrack was invented about 30 years ago by Briton Martin Collins, who installed the first such surface on the gallops of British trainer Richard Hannon in 1987. The business grew as an increasing number of European training tracks began to use it. It entered a lucrative new phase when the Keeneland Association, owner of a prestigious racecourse and auction company, decided to use it on its training track in Kentucky in 2004.

However, Polytrack may not have cornered the American market. Given the estimated cost of $6m to $9m per track of Polytrack installation, California racetrack executives have decided to look at other synthetic surfaces as well.

Howard Zucker, who trains horses at Santa Anita and Del Mar and is the head of the southern California track safety committee, recently visited Turfway. Of Polytrack, he says: “It’s so safe. It takes water unbelievably well. You get the effect that you’re galloping with something like bounce.”

Zucker was one of the driving forces behind having the surface installed in California. Like many of the state’s trainers, he has lost horses to catastrophic injury and he calls the current dirt surfaces “a major killer”. There were more than 240 horse deaths at California tracks between 2003 and 2005. Statistics released by Turfway show that the number of catastrophic breakdowns decreased from six in the autumn of 2004 to none last autumn, with 43 (2 per cent) more runners. During the holiday meeting of 2005, there was one fewer catastrophic breakdown despite 345 (13 per cent) more runners.

Trainers and jockeys spoke overwhelmingly in favour of the surface in studies conducted by Matrix Research Group, an independent market research company that conducted interviews with 57 trainers and 35 riders at Turfway. As a group, jockeys were somewhat more positive in their assessment of the track, with 94 per cent of them agreeing it was safer than other track surfaces, compared with 86 per cent of trainers.

Individually, trainers said the surface led to fewer injuries, lower veterinary bills and more starts per horse, while jockeys praised the ease with which horses moved over the surface and the lack of “kickback” – the dirt that flies back from hooves and causes irritation and even eye infection in horses.who aren’t front-runners.

It sounds like a win-win situation despite the cost of installation. Turfway expects to recoup its investment in about five years, based on reduced maintenance costs and increased revenue due to fewer race dates being lost to inclement weather.

But what would a revolution be without a dissenting voice? Andrew Beyer, the longtime Washington Post racing columnist and betting guru – his invention, the Beyer figure, is a speed measure so widely used that it has been turned into a verb as in “He Beyered an impressive 95 in his last start” – is not happy with the prospect of Polytrack’s propagation.

In a recent column, Beyer deplored another of Polytrack’s supposed virtues: its elimination of “bias”, the tendency of a track to favour horses with one running style or post position over another. Californian tracks overwhelmingly favour front-runners, or “speed horses”, as did Turfway in its pre-Polytrack days. Since then Turfway has demonstrated a marked decrease in speed bias.

While admitting that training and racing speed horses “does take a toll on the animals”, Beyer asks: “Does the California Horse Racing Board really want to alter the features that made its sport unique so that the nature of racing at Santa Anita can be more like Turfway Park?

“Certainly, horseplayers wouldn’t be happy about such uniformity,” which would eliminate the betting angle of bias.

To which Zucker replies: “He’s worrying about some esoteric nuance in the track bias that he supposedly takes advantage of, while we kill hundreds on our tracks and cost owners millions. Every Polytrack is different and it won’t make racing a homogenous bore, just make it safer.”

Rachel Pagones is bloodstock editor of the Racing Post

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