American trainer Graham Motion spoke at the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities conference this week in France, as part of a speaker lineup that also included Dinny Phipps and Jim Gagliano from The Jockey Club, racetrack researcher Mick Peterson and others from around the world. Motion's presentation was on American racing/training surfaces, the text of which follows:
I am here to talk about racing surfaces in America, and when you think about American racing you think about dirt. The bulk of our races occur on dirt tracks, the surface of the country's biggest events - the Triple Crown races, the Breeders' Cup Classic and dozens of other Grade 1 races. But that's only part of the story.
In America, we race on dirt, turf and synthetic tracks. We race in all kinds of weather conditions and we race all year in all parts of the country.
In 2011, I was fortunate enough to win the Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom, a horse with a largely European pedigree who finished his career with success on all three American surfaces including a win in the Dubai World Cup on Tapeta. That he won the world's most famous dirt race, in his dirt debut, is a testament to the horse. Any discussion about racing surfaces in America must put the safety of the horse first. That's why we are here.
America has raced on dirt throughout its history, mainly because there were very few options. We don't have the racing schedule to support racing on turf exclusively. With racing every day, at extended meetings, the turf must be protected for use throughout the meeting. Dirt offered a more predictable surface to turf that was often too firm or too soft. Dirt can vary from track to track. Some dirt tracks are deeper than others. Some favor speed. Some reward closers.
Dirt tracks are affected by weather. When it rains, the track must often be sealed to repel the water. This can create a hard surface, and can also result in the top layer of dirt being washed to the inside, especially on the turns.
In the winter, maintaining a safe surface when temperatures are well below freezing entails constant movement of the dirt as well as adding chemicals to prevent it from freezing. The challenge at a racetrack vs. a training center is even greater, given that the track is used for training in the morning and racing in the afternoon or evening.
But, at the end of the day, it's American racing. It's what generations of American Thoroughbreds were bred to do. Dirt racing is not going away and I don't think it should. It just seems like times are changing enough to consider other options - turf, which is already embraced widely in America, synthetics and more sophisticated dirt tracks.
Where I train at Fair Hill, in Maryland on the East Coast, you saw on the video the dirt, Tapeta and turf surfaces that we use. Our tracks are not used for racing, which makes maintenance easier no matter the weather. The dirt surface at Fair Hill would be somewhat comparable to the dirt training gallops at Chantilly. In my experience horses that favor synthetic tracks in Europe tend not to handle the switch to dirt tracks in America as some might believe- but most turf horses handle the switch to synthetic.
An advantage of being at Fair Hill is that we have the option on a rainy day to train on a synthetic track, which drains very well as opposed to the dirt. In the winter, we tend to use the synthetic exclusively since it handles the cold weather much better and remains a consistent surface. I will try to run my 2-year-olds on the dirt in their early starts. But they will all train on the synthetic, especially in wet or freezing weather. If they don't show an affinity for the dirt in their workouts or races, I would switch them to a different surface for racing.
This is why I think there is a place for synthetic tracks in America, whether it be as a training surface or as an alternative to a wet dirt track. It's a safer, more consistent option.
Like dirt racing, American turf racing can be a victim of the weather. We don't have the luxury of running on soft turf because we have to protect the turf courses that are used throughout the year rather than at short meetings as in Europe and some other countries. Saratoga's six-week meeting in July and August is considered a "boutique" meet in America, but includes nine or 10 races a day, six days a week. The turf course gets a lot of use, and therefore gets protected when it rains. Races that are moved to the dirt in wet weather often result in late scratches and small fields which is not a good thing for betting purposes.
For turf horses, a synthetic surface is a better option than a wet dirt track and that's been proven at the handful of tracks that use synthetic tracks.
Synthetic tracks have a short history of about 10 years in the U.S. Polytrack was installed at Turfway Park, a winter racetrack in Kentucky and later at Keeneland for its prestigious spring and fall meetings. Arlington Park in Illinois and Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania followed, but the leader in synthetic installation was California. In what I, and many others, feel was an over-reaction, the state mandated the replacement of dirt tracks with synthetics for equine safety reasons. The aim was noble. The result was not as the tracks are now being removed and replaced by dirt.
To me, it seems that:
- Some corners were cut in the construction.
- Not enough was known about them and how they were going to react in extreme heat, or extreme weather.
- The track maintenance crews were ill prepared on how to cope with them.
The tracks were introduced as maintenance free, somewhat. In reality, they take a great deal of upkeep. At Fair Hill, we are constantly upgrading the track. We add wax and other material to it to maintain its consistency. We monitor it closely.
Some California tracks had a big problem with drainage, which shows there was a problem with the installation. The best thing about our track at Fair Hill is it drains so well. But now, the synthetics are being replaced with dirt in California, and Keeneland is using a new dirt track for the fall meet which started this weekend. Only Arlington Park, Presque Isle Downs, Golden Gate Fields, Turfway Park and Woodbine have synthetic main tracks now. Partly because of California, trainers were skeptical of the surfaces. So were breeders, who have worked to produce dirt horses. Even handicappers have a hard time adjusting to synthetics, which puts wagering handle into question at some tracks.
As a trainer, it's nice to know what you're dealing with. You don't get soft synthetic or firm synthetic. When you ship a horse to a synthetic track in the morning, you don't have to worry about how the track will be at race time.
Synthetic surfaces aren't perfect.
Trainers say they see a lot of new problems with synthetic tracks but to me it's not looking at the big picture because there's plenty of information that has shown it greatly reduces catastrophic injury and produces a much safer surface to race on. We want to race on the best surface available for our horses, to give horses the best chance of succeeding.
You do seem to see more hind-end issues, but is this because we're not noticing as many front-end issues? Statistically, there's evidence that it's so much safer.... This is my point, by abandoning synthetic surfaces, we've turned a blind eye to the safety of the horses.
I recently listened to Dr. Mick Peterson speak at Fair Hill, and he made a point to talk about consistency being the goal of any racing or training surface - turf, dirt or synthetic. The horse is searching for, and counting, on a consistent surface. And synthetics - when done right - are consistent, no matter the weather.
As a training surface, I love it. I use it regularly for most of my horses. It's consistent. It's safe. Most people in the U.S. train at racetracks and have no choice but to use a dirt track every day. At some tracks, where they have the space, it would be great to have the synthetic surface as a training track even if they only race on dirt and turf.
The point is I believe there is a place for synthetic tracks in America. They shouldn't have been installed as quickly as they were, but they also should not be dismissed. They've proven to be safer and ultimately we have a responsibility to the horse.
I will gladly take part in Keeneland's fall meeting, on a sophisticated, researched and high-tech dirt track, this year. I'm looking forward to it. It's the first "new" dirt surface, with science behind it. If there's something good to come of this, it's the research that went into a new dirt surface and the drainage system at Keeneland.
Give synthetic tracks some of the credit for this, along with Dr. Peterson's work. It will be fascinating to see how it works. What we should all want is the safety and well being of the horse. What's the best surface for the horse to race on? It's worth the effort to find out.
See the IFHA website for more on the conference, including archived video of the presentation.
See the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory website for more on Peterson's racing surfaces research.