by John Furgele (The 228)
When a horse dies at Aqueduct, it is sad. When a horse dies at Saratoga, it is sad—and noticed. At this year’s Saratoga meet, nine horses have died while racing or training and the meet is not even at its midpoint. When this happens, everybody shows concern. Those that love the sport defend it and cite how rare racing deaths are. Those that think the sport is inhumane jump to criticize it with some even calling for it to be banned.
The question at hand is simple. Did horse racing do the right thing? Today, every sport says that they are concerned about their athletes. The NFL says that it is trying to reduce concussions by establishing protocol before a player can return to action. The movie “Concussion,” highlighted how CTE affects some that have played the dangerous game that is football. In the 1960s and 1970s, nobody cared about leading with your head so as long as the devastating hit was made. Times have changed.
Horse racing says that they, too, care about their athletes, but do they? In the early 2000s, it appeared so. Several tracks across North America replaced dirt with synthetic surfaces–either Polytrack or Tapeta–with the hope of reducing equine fatalities. It seemed to be working, but there was bellyaching. Trainers didn’t like it, owners didn’t like it and the claim was that neither did the bettors. Places like Keeneland concluded that owners and trainers wouldn’t bring their horses to race there because synthetic was not the same as dirt. The Blue Grass Stakes, Keeneland’s Kentucky Derby prep race was diminishing in quality with star 3-year-olds taking their talents to places where the horses ran on dirt; at least that’s what was said.
For a time, it looked like synthetics would stick around. The California State Legislature passed a law that required all of its tracks to install a synthetic surface by the end of 2007 and they all complied. Del Mar, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Golden Gate Fields would now run on polytrack. It appeared that safety was placed first and foremost in the horse racing game. In addition to the California tracks, Woodbine, Presque Isle, Arlington Park, Turfway Park installed either polytrack or Tapeta.
When a Barbaro gets injured and eventually has to be put down, it gets noticed. His story was chronicled from the moment he took a bad step at Pimlico until he died from laminitis. For the older set, the image of Ruffian collapsing in her 1975 match race against Foolish Pleasure still resonates. When this happens, the question for the leaders of the sport is “what are you doing to make your game safer?” The immediate reply was the installation of synthetic racing surfaces.
From 2009 thru 2014, it seemed like synthetics was working. Equine fatalities are based on per 1,000 starters and during this time, dirt surfaces saw 2.07 deaths; turf (grass) saw 1.65 and synthetics saw 1.22. At Keeneland, deaths went from 1.98 on dirt to only 0.33 on synthetic. Joe Drape of the New York Times reported that field sizes didn’t decrease, betting didn’t decrease and on-track attendance didn’t either, but for some reason, that wasn’t satisfying enough. The thought of bucking tradition and not running on dirt was too much for many to absorb.
Drape also tracked Santa Anita. He reported that in 2009, when Santa Anita ran on polytrack, there 0.90 deaths per 1,000 starters. From 2010-2013 when they went back to dirt, equine deaths were 3.45, 2.94, 2.89 and 2.11. Clearly, running on synthetics was safer than running on dirt.
From 2009-2013 there were 1.22 deaths per 1,000 starters on synthetics compared to 2.08 per 1,000 on dirt. Those numbers don’t jump out at you, but there are significant. In 2014, there was an average of 24 deaths each day at America’s thoroughbred race tracks. For some, that’s 24 too many.
Summertime is the time where people head to race tracks. Saratoga averages 25,000 fans per day and Del Mar is where the turf meets the surf. Del Mar had dirt, switched to poly and now runs on dirt again; Saratoga, the oldest race course in America has always run on dirt. That’s where horse racing went wrong. If those tracks would have made the switch and explained to its droves the reasons why, then the sport would have moved forward with a much more accepting audience.
To say that horses die because of the surface is a bit unfair. How many horses are not sound when they head to the starting gate? The answer: plenty. How many horses are placed in claiming races with an injury just so the owner can rid themselves of it? The answer again: plenty. But, I’ll make the conclusion that more injured horses ran on synthetic because it was perceived as safer. Horses don’t offer any value if they don’t race. Sure, an American Pharoah won’t run at less than 100 percent in a big stakes race, but Old Senator will surely run in a $17,000 claiming race if it is physically possible. Because synthetics were deemed to be safer, my hunch is that a lot of horse that shouldn’t run, did and the number could have been lower than the stats indicate if proper protocol was followed.
The sport dropped the ball. If all tracks would have switched to a synthetic surface, then the playing field would be even. The Kentucky Derby would be run on synthetic, making the Blue Grass Stakes a viable option as a prep. If all tracks would have switched, the number of equine fatalities might have dropped more. The historians and traditionalists would have balked, stomped and cried, but the younger people–critical to the future of the sport–would have applauded the move without thinking of nostalgia. Today’s kids are much more aware of the environment and of safety than their moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas. They grew up with seat belts, bike helmets and car seats; safety first is their only reference point. They cry when dad kills a mouse because they actually feel bad for the critter that is eating through your attic walls. The sport surely doesn’t want to have the younger generation see horses break down in races.
But, that didn’t happen. The Breeder’s Cup wouldn’t award you their event unless you had a dirt track and as result, by switching back, Keeneland, Santa Anita and Del Mar have or will be hosting the two-day world-class event. Woodbine, a previous host, knows that by choosing to replace polytrack with Tapeta, the Breeder’s Cup won’t be coming north anytime soon. In a stunning development, Woodbine actually put safety ahead of monies.
There are five remaining synthetics remaining in North America. In addition to Woodbine, we have Presque Isle (PA), Golden Gate Fields (CA), Arlington Park (IL), and Turfway Park (KY) as the last bastions of putting safety first. The rest will enjoy their racing seasons, have their big races and if lucky, secure a Breeder’s Cup or two going forward.
If it appears as if I am ripping the horse racing industry that really isn’t the case. What perplexes me is that the industry had a blueprint in place that was working. Synthetics were installed and fatalities were decreasing. One would think that it would catch on and more tracks would move to synthetics, but for many reasons that didn’t happen. And, as a result, the industry has provided more fodder to PETA and those who despise the sport. To me, that doesn’t make sense.The Kentucky Derby is watched by over 10 million people. Of that, 9,750,000 don’t know anything about the sport and couldn’t tell the difference between dirt or fake dirt. Those are the people that the sport needs more than the 250,000 die-hards that watch no matter what. When you get all of those new people watching, you want to be as safe as you can. Synthetics was working and rather than expand it, they get rid of it.