Industry Panel discusses Racing surfaces

A panel to discuss issues in racing was assembled by Bloodhorse to discuss various issues in the industry, racing surfaces was one of them.
Published
27th Dec 2023
Reading time
24 mins
Racing surfaces have different positives and negatives associated with them, so it is important that an industry-led panel discussed these matters and propose changes to make in the future.

Bob Ehlat, Bloodhorse, 2023. Read full article.

To discuss several of the important issues facing the sport as a new year approaches, BloodHorse has assembled a panel of about 30 industry participants to participate in the 2023 BH Year-End Survey where they can provide their thoughts on six key topics and generate meaningful discussions on these issues.

TODAY’S QUESTION

In terms of equine safety, can significant progress still be made in racing on dirt surfaces? In what ways? Should there be more racing on all-weather surfaces?

Tony Allevatopresident, NYRA Bets/chief revenue officer, New York Racing Association: We can always do more to make things safer. If you look at the Oklahoma training track at Saratoga, we had nearly 10,000 horses train over that track with no fatalities this year. That shows you can race on a dirt track in a safe manner. But ultimately, as we try to get fatalities down to zero, you have to look at all options and technology comes into play, as it does in every other sport. So, we have to take a serious look at synthetics as an option. That’s one of the things we are studying and doing our due diligence on. You can’t look at the numbers and say there’s nothing there.

Shannon Arvinpresident and CEO, Keeneland: We believe all options should remain on the table with respect to track surfaces, and research should focus on determining the ideal track surface for Thoroughbred athletes. We believe the solution to this challenge may well be in “reconditioned” dirt surfaces, such as those that exist at KeenelandSanta Anita Park, and Del Mar. All were repurposed into dirt surfaces with a consistent asphalt base and vertical drainage system that enhances their ability to perform with their respective components of sand, clay, and silt. I would also add that Saratoga Race Course‘s newly renovated Oklahoma training track has proven to be a safe dirt surface. If we accept that the three most important things about dirt track maintenance are “water, water AND water,” then the superior ability of these reconditioned dirt tracks to deliver the desired percentages of water content that ensures consistency throughout the track surface makes them worthy of comparison to synthetic surfaces with respect to safety.  There are further agricultural technologies that we need to explore in GPS mapping and moisture sensor devices on our track equipment that can allow us to improve our capabilities on any given day in various weather conditions. While there is value in exploring all-weather surfaces, we believe that racing on all-weather surfaces should not be heralded as the sole solution to race track safety. There is a lack of understanding and science regarding how best to install these surfaces in different climates, and further, there is not currently a vendor that could meet the demand. Regardless of the composition of the track, all track surfaces require consistent maintenance and oversight. Standards for routine track maintenance, including what types of equipment are required, should be implemented so there is greater consistency in tracks and track maintenance standards. 

Dr. Dionne Bensonchief veterinary officer, 1/ST Racing: There are certainly opportunities to make dirt racing safer for horses. One of the things that we have done at 1/ST Racing is to require horses to be monitored in training. Seeing horses once every few weeks, at best, when they are entered to race misses most of the horse’s racing life. What I found is that watching these horses on a regular basis allows us to intervene more often before the horse even makes it to the starting gate. This, coupled with attending vet entry and training exams and work sign-ups and checks, as have been done at Santa Anita Park since 2019, yielded a 0.00 musculoskeletal fatality rate in racing on the dirt surface in 2022. Simply put, it is proven that veterinary interventions by both the trainer’s and the track’s veterinarians can make racing safer on all surfaces. 

Louis Cellapresident, Oaklawn Park: I would not make a broad statement or presumption that dirt surfaces are inferior to all-weather, or turf surfaces as relates to equine safety, since no track will protect an unsound horse. Every dirt track surface is unique to its environment. Too much or too little rain impacts it; chemicals mixed in northern track surfaces are completely different than tracks that do not use chemicals at all. In our view, consistent and safe tracks are what is important, regardless of surface. 

Dennis Cornickpart owner of Flightline through West Point Thoroughbreds: If one truly studies the numbers, progress has been made. Unfortunately, this is an industry where injuries and fatalities will happen. One of my biggest frustrations is the one-sided focus on the negative versus the emphasis on the positive. Social media is one of the biggest culprits here. The voices of the negatives seem louder and more powerful than those of the positives. While we should always strive for zero injuries and fatalities, it is not realistic. Many of the injuries have unfortunately been high-profile, and in clusters at major tracks, creating a major wave of negativity and poor perception. We must look for ways to consistently reduce injuries and fatalities without turning the core of the sport upside down. An analogy is football and head injuries. Research is being conducted into select rule changes, better equipment and safety protocols, etc. But nobody is saying the core of the sport needs to change. Racing needs the same approach. Better understanding of track maintenance, increased vet checks, therapeutic advances, research, select rule changes, etc. Not turning the core of the sport upside down. Ask the question about unintended consequences relevant to any decision. In football, there are protest groups against the violence of the sport that get little air time. The NFL squashes them because they are united and a strong holistic group. Our industry allows PETA to become a spokesperson for the sport. The NFL would never allow any outside groups to gain momentum in damaging their brand.

Brad Coxtrainer: We can always do things to enhance and promote safety with racetracks, be it with more breaks during training hours or maybe by delaying training hours when there are concerns with the weather. I’m personally happy and content with racing on the dirt. We do race and train on synthetics at Turfway Park, but I don’t see a need to expand the synthetics to other tracks. Synthetic has its place, but I’m a fan of racing on dirt and we should continue to move forward with it. There are concerns with all tracks, including synthetics. I find the injury rates are about equal on dirt and synthetics.

Dennis DrazinCEO and chairman, Monmouth Park: I still remain committed to racing on dirt surfaces and progress needs to be made on improving safety of dirt surfaces. At Monmouth Park, we are committed to spending as much of our revenues as possible to maintain a safe surface. Unfortunately, no matter how much money or expertise is spent on safety and safe surfaces, the breakdown number will never get to zero. Monmouth Park has been exploring a synthetic surface at the Meadowlands for several years but the cost is $10 million and we simply do not have the money. We have been attempting to get financial help from the state. The reason is related to cancelling racing because of rain making the turf course unsafe to use, but that problem is attributable to only having turf at the Meadowlands because of the high cost of switching to dirt.

Drew Fleming, president and CEO, Breeders’ Cup: At the Breeders’ Cup, we have seen firsthand the success that comes with investing in safety and integrity measures—whether racing on dirt, turf, or all-weather tracks. However, there is no question additional data and research on the safety and efficacy of all-weather surfaces is required, and that’s why we are honored to work with others to continue to analyze various components of racetrack surfaces with a goal of creating an ideal racetrack surface. It is important to note that it is not simply a dirt versus all-weather surface question. We must further analyze all the components of racetrack surfaces, including cushion, drainage, base layer, and moisture levels. The concept should be focused on creating an ideal racing surface based on a myriad of factors, including geographical differences, form, and breeding.

Jim Gaglianopresident and COO, The Jockey Club: There are a lot of variables to consider on the matter of dirt and all-weather surfaces, including regional environment. So, I can’t really answer the question with a general answer. However, what is certain is through scientific research we have already made great progress in improving the safety of the racing surfaces. It is important that this research continues and all track operators adopt the protocols and standards set forth by HISA.  

Eric HamelbackCEO, National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association: I do believe significant progress still can be made in racing on dirt surfaces through data collection and research. The progress will need its roots from tested, peer-reviewed, and ongoing research. However, the industry must acknowledge that risks cannot be eliminated in horse racing. We all should continue to do our part to mitigate risks, but those who believe risks will or can be eliminated are not functioning in reality. The dangers of regulating horsemanship out of horse racing has already begun to rear its ugly head. Our mission statement clearly states that our organization strives for the highest standards of horsemanship to continuously improve the care, health, and safety of the horse. We are always focused on anything that can be done to make horse racing safer. We need a reversal of the trend rather than just accept fewer horses making fewer starts. Especially in those regions with record purse levels, we must find creative ways to incentivize ownership in the industry, making it more palatable for owners to pay training bills, which are significant. Perhaps it’s time for the industry to consider a system of sorts that gives owners and trainers a chance to run against similar competition, alongside our claiming races. I strongly believe that slashing dates and number of races is not the answer, but we cannot just sit by and think everything will just work itself out. We should be advocating for fixing our issues, and not just being reactive to them.

Joe Harperpresident and CEO, Del Mar: We’re always looking at ways to improve maintenance to our track surfaces, and Del Mar continues to allocate significant resources to ensure that our main track and turf course are among the industry’s best. Over the last several years Del Mar and Santa Anita have shown that racing on dirt can be among the safest in the sport. For tracks that routinely deal with inclement weather, synthetic surfaces can be a useful option.

Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffsconsultant, Thoroughbred breeding, racing, and management: Dirt racing is the backbone of American racing. California has done an incredible job improving safety for dirt racing. Dr. Francisco Uzal from UC Davis provided this information in a report to the California Horse Racing Board on Dec. 14, 2023. All-weather surfaces do not work for all horses, just as turf does not. Thus, let individual states decide based upon their individual needs.

Lisa LazarusCEO, HISA: At HISA’s request, NYRA recently formed a new All-Weather Surfaces Committee to bring some of Thoroughbred racing’s top leaders together to evaluate the potential impact of various surfaces on equine injury rates. The committee’s goals include determining (1) which surfaces, either on their own or in combination, are safest for horses; (2) the current state of all-weather surface technologies, including supply-chain and maintenance issues; and (3) how the sport can address the potential economic and logistical challenges of ensuring that the safest possible surfaces are in place at racetracks across the country. The Committee is already in the process of commissioning additional research and reviewing currently available data with the goal of making a recommendation to HISA and to the sport at large concerning the introduction of additional all-weather surfaces in Thoroughbred racing. These are important questions, and we need to make sure to use all the data and analysis at our disposal to get this right. 

Ed Martinpresident, Association of Racing Commissioners International: I personally believe that the track surface data collection efforts of HISA need to be married with their equine injury data and research of Dr. (Sue) Stover. Personally, I would trust Dr. Stover’s take on this.

Dan Metzgerpresident, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association: Racetrack safety is perhaps the top priority facing our industry. Any decisions related to racing surfaces, specifically dirt and synthetic, must be based on solid science, data, and economic implications to all industry stakeholders. The recent news that the Oklahoma training track at Saratoga had no fatal breakdowns over seven months with more than 9,100 timed workouts clearly showed that significant progress was made to improve equine safety on dirt surfaces. Racetracks need to make financial investments in racing surfaces and horsemen need to embrace new technologies and innovation, including equine wearables, to ensure the welfare and safety of our horses and jockeys.

Ron Moquetttrainer: The art of taking care of a racetrack is slowly being replaced by the science of maintaining a racetrack. We are replacing feel and experience as the guide for what we do to the surfaces by scientific calculations of materials and satellite measurements. Any novice can tell you we place more energy and emphasis on safety of our training and racing surfaces now than we ever have, which is good and should continue. However, if we don’t breed sounder horses it doesn’t matter. While the breeding side of our industry continues to prioritize on the sales more than longevity of the horse, the rest of the industry will have to look for ways of keeping an inferior product as safe as possible.

Maggi Mossowner: Each and every track hiring the best professionals to ensure an even and safe dirt surface based on ever-changing weather and environment factors would be a good start, which HISA is doing. Nobody knows better than trainers, exercise riders, and jockeys as to how horses are coming back and handling the track. Each track should have the availability of these crucial participants to speak about the track and its effect on the horses. Each track should have the necessary equipment and personnel to listen and address these concerns and remedy the issues with the tracks. Hopefully new technology and continued improvement stops tragic breakdowns. Two very public breakdowns at Saratoga started a firestorm, and rightfully so. Due to the public reality of these two breakdowns that were much more visible to the public, a knee-jerk reaction gravitated toward synthetic tracks as the answer. Millions were spent on that years ago and was equally as troublesome as to soft tissue injuries, the weather, and the betting public. Most of us that endured that attempt at synthetics dealt with other issues as to soundness and other injuries to the horses. Going back to synthetics turns the breeding industry upside down and changes every dynamic of the racing product. I feel the talk of synthetics was a knee-jerk reaction without the memory of a very failed experiment of this in the past.

Graham Motiontrainer: I don’t know all the statistics, but I do know that it is black and white that racing on synthetics causes less equine fatalities and if that is what we are striving for then we should pay attention. There has been some improvement in dirt tracks, certainly Keeneland would seem to have improved their surface significantly with the renovations including improved drainage. With the amount of turf racing that we now have we need to do a better job of protecting and maintaining our turf courses. Synthetics offer a great alternative to running on turf in extreme conditions while also protecting the turf.

Mike Mulvihill, president, insights and analytics, FOX Sports: I’m certainly not an expert on racing surfaces but I find the statistics showing a significantly lower breakdown rate on all-weather surfaces compelling and I think that in the long run, the American game has to move in the direction of synthetic surfaces. 

Joe Orsenotrainer, president of the Florida Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association: The main problem with dirt surfaces is that the track superintendent needs to keep the surface even and have a good base. To accomplish this, the superintendent has to have the right materials on the track, work the surface daily, add the right amount of water, and be willing to listen to the exercise riders and trainers in the morning. Even the best racetrack surfaces in the country were not designed to support racing and training 12 months a year. With all-weather surfaces, I am finding that most horses get over the all-weather surfaces very well and seem to handle it. Horses are recovering better following all-weather races or breezes. This may not be true for all horses, but for the most part, I am finding that most horses like the surface and are staying sounder. It seems that the track superintendent has an easier time maintaining this surface, compared to the dirt surface (which is inconsistent most of the time).

John Ortiztrainer: Dirt racing is essential to the game. It’s a traditional and classic surface. It’s a forgiving surface. Weather has a lot to do with the problems. The times we saw a lot of catastrophic injuries, you usually had a very rainy season. The track operators need to be aware of the weather and let the track maintenance people do their jobs. With the technology we have, we should be able to monitor the dirt and turf courses very well. If there’s a way to add a synthetic track as a second or third surface that will be helpful because it gives you a backup plan in bad weather. But dirt should be the primary surface.

Dr. Mick Petersondirector, University of Kentucky Racetrack Safety Program: The primary difference between dirt and synthetic is uniformity of the surface. The biomechanics of synthetics are inferior to turf and dirt but the surface is more consistent. Aging and degradation of synthetic surfaces is also a concern. Variability in dirt surfaces is primarily due to differences in mechanical properties resulting from inconsistent moisture content. Improved moisture control and maintenance combined with the improved design of the base and profile can reduce the disparity in outcomes as demonstrated by the redesign of the dirt at Del Mar. Training and support of racetrack maintenance personnel, and the professionalization of the maintenance role are also needed. The question fails to address the additional challenge. Turf racing is increasing in popularity and importance to the overall sport. High-profile failures of turf surfaces indicate the need for improved turf surfaces. Having golf experts explain how to grow grass on a putting green is inadequate for 1,000-pound animals traveling 35 mph and has led to high-profile failures.  

Mike Repoleowner, commissioner National Thoroughbred Alliance: There’s a lot more we can do with horse safety. Dirt racing is what people get excited about most. There should be all-weather options. I love what Gulfstream Park is doing with the all-weather option. The new Belmont Park will have two turf courses, a main track and a synthetic course. If tracks can put in three surfaces it will be helpful. I’d suggest putting in an all-weather training facility at the track and that can help with the safety of horses. In the past when tracks went from dirt to just synthetics that didn’t work, but making synthetic an option, whether through training or racing, is brilliant. You can go from turf to synthetic if there’s rain but if it’s a very muddy track that doesn’t look too safe you could also move the dirt races to synthetics. Synthetic tracks have a future here but going 100% synthetics is not the answer. It doesn’t grow the sport.

Tom Rooneypresident and CEO, National Thoroughbred Racing Association: Although I’m not a scientist with expert knowledge on racing surfaces, I think that we should be open-minded to the safest possible options that are available to best protect our equine and human athletes. Whether that’s a dirt track or an artificial surface, which statistics show may favor safety, we should explore all options. We have all heard compelling evidence for the advantages of synthetic tracks and look forward to participating further in those discussions. 

Tom Ryanmanaging partner, SF Bloodstock and Racing: I do believe that significant progress can still be made on improving equine safety on dirt surfaces. Improvements should involve enhancing track maintenance, optimizing cushioning, and utilizing moisture monitoring technology. We need a more scientific approach to surface management. No two tracks are the same and, therefore, need individualized management. Equipment at most tracks is antiquated. We’ve been using the same equipment for decades, which only makes a track look even at best. Current-day tillage farmers use far superior technology and equipment. This is an area where racetracks and HISA need to work closely together. Historical track testing and data points need to be upgraded immediately. All-weather surfaces offer benefits in heavily rain-affected jurisdictions. I love it as a training surface and a substitute for negatively rain-affected turf and dirt racing. A safe option should always be available in those situations where the weather conditions may affect the safety of traditional surfaces.

John Sikuraowner and president, Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms: There has been a lot of talk about synthetic surfaces. As an industry, we cannot mandate racetracks to install these surfaces and I still believe a dirt surface to be safe to conduct racing. The addition of a synthetic training track would be a great alternative for inclement weather and perhaps lessen the everyday wear and tear on horses in training. I think there should be a traveling team that routinely inspects all racetracks and implements standards that must be adhered to in order to conduct live racing. A failure to address issues of track maintenance and surface compliance would revoke the ability to run until remedied.

Mike Smithjockey: I believe that progress can be made in racing on dirt surfaces. Technology and resources are available for tracks to ensure that the dirt surface is maintained in a way that ensures consistency and the proper cushion. Additionally, racetracks should have experienced and qualified personnel and equipment to maintain the surfaces specific to that racetrack. As in the past, there are different materials that the tracks can mix with the dirt that will allow the horses to get over it safely with the proper bounce. Unfortunately, for various reasons, there are tracks that have very hard kickback, which hurts both the equine and human athletes. Based on my experience, when the kickback is hard, it is a very good indicator that the surface is also hard. It is essential the racetrack receives the appropriate amount of moisture and is being maintained properly. With regards to the all-weather surfaces, there are certain benefits of all-weather depending on the location of the track and the time of year and moisture content. However, I do not believe it is a solution for all racetracks. Additionally, there is not a lot of give. Jockeys can attest when there is a spill on some synthetic surfaces, the jockeys do not slide compared to the way they do on dirt and turf and their bodies absorb the direct impact. During the time when certain tracks were attempting to have a synthetic surface, there were many more (jockey) injuries that were more significant. While I personally do not agree with some of the synthetic surfaces, if racetracks are going to use it, there must be further research to determine the impact and long-term effects on the health and welfare of the participants, and there must be more education to those who are going to be responsible for maintaining.  

Nick Tammarotrack announcer at Sam Houston Race Park, handicapper: This topic feels so 2008. All kidding aside, the last thing that needs to be done is a hasty move to full-scale implementation of synthetic surfaces. I’m aware of the safety numbers and fatality rates. However, my personal thought is that there are people out there thinking there will be zero fatalities. I hate to say it, but that is simply NEVER going to happen. We need to utilize the work of the experts across the world to establish and maintain safe dirt tracks, which I still think are the best solution long-term for the game. The effect that wide-scale racing on synthetics will have on the breeding industry will be so significant over time that what we think is a short-term fix will end up being a long-term rupture. Additionally, it would behoove us to start acting as if we aren’t the only country in the world running on dirt. Various countries in South America, the Middle East and (East Asia) all race on dirt and turf.  

Najja Thompsonexecutive director, New York Thoroughbred Breeders: It’s imperative we, as industry stakeholders and racing participants, do everything within our power to ensure the protection of our equine athletes on every surface on which they compete. That begins with a comprehensive study of all equine injuries including fatalities and their rate of occurrence for each racing surface. Additionally, we must investigate changing weather patterns with extreme wet or dry weather as it relates to track maintenance and if there is any causal relationship. I have full faith pending the results of those investigative studies that everyone in our industry, including racetrack operators and stakeholders, owners, breeders, and bettors, would be in favor of having our equine athletes compete on only the safest surfaces. One emerging area, which I believe will vastly improve the health and safety of our equine athletes, is the increased use of wearable monitoring technology. As important as the study on racing surfaces is, the same holds true for the active monitoring of our equine athletes daily to identify the likelihood of injuries before they occur.

Elliott WaldenCEO, president, and racing manager, WinStar Farm: I think progress can be made on dirt. I am not a fan of racing 100% on all-weather surfaces. If I were racing czar, I would implement three surfaces where possible, like Gulfstream Park has done and Belmont Park will have, and create a balance of racing that would lessen the number of races run on dirt while maintaining dirt racing at the highest level. Let’s not forget we have made significant progress. We trained on all-weather at WinStar for 10 years, and it came with its own set of problems. Our experience is more soft tissue injuries that would take longer to heal. We have 400-500 individual horses come through our rehab/training center each year so the numbers are significant. I realize we need to continue to address the issue of horse safety, and I think progress can still be made even though it is unrealistic to think it will be zero fatalities. 

Recommendations

Important lessons and takeaways for the thoroughbred community from this study include:

  1. Leverage Local Expertise: The industry should continue to harness the knowledge of local track superintendents. Collaborate with these experts who understand the unique challenges and conditions of each racetrack, ensuring a targeted approach to surface safety.
  2. Regular On-Site Inspections: Implement a structured schedule for on-site inspections by the Advisory Group to monitor and address surface conditions. Timely interventions based on firsthand assessments can significantly contribute to the safety and consistency of racing surfaces.
  3. Data-Driven Decision-Making: Emphasize the importance of data analysis and historical data from the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory (RSTL) in decision-making processes. Utilize technology and research to enhance the understanding of surface dynamics and continually improve safety standards.
  4. Year-Round Advisory Support: Ensure the Advisory Group remains active throughout the year, advising on track surface issues. Establish a continuous feedback loop to promptly address emerging concerns and adapt safety measures accordingly.
  5. Collaborate with Supporting Experts: Strengthen collaboration with supporting experts such as Mackenzie Rockefeller and Kaleb Dempsey from the RSTL. Utilize their expertise in data analysis, testing equipment operations, material testing, and historical data comparison to enhance the comprehensive approach to surface safety.

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