Studying the Surface

- -

The three jockeys replied with one word – “homework” – when asked what California should have done before it went about mandating synthetic racetracks.

I moderated a discussion on synthetic racing surfaces with Javier Castellano, Richard Migliore and John Velazquez at a day-long forum at Fasig-Tipton’s sales pavilion Tuesday afternoon. Organized by the state of New York’s Task Force on Retired Race Horses, the event included panels of jockeys, trainers, racetrack managers, veterinarians and researchers. Questions came from members of the task force, the audience, the various moderators.

From the people directly involved with the animals, the theme was moderation, study, patience. The jockeys agreed that the tracks seemed safer for horses – especially during bad weather – but also agreed that there are safe dirt surfaces.

“Horses feel very smooth on synthetic tracks,” said Velazquez, whose experience includes spring and fall meets on Keeneland’s Polytrack. “It’s easier on the horses, or it feels like it to me anyway.”

Migliore cited the specific example of horses stumbling, either when breaking out of the gate or when pulling up after a race.

“I can count on one hand the number of horses that have stumbled coming out of the gate with me on synthetic tracks,” said the jockey, who has ridden extensively on synthetics in California. “I get five or six stumbles a month on dirt tracks.”

Castellano spoke specifically about 3-year-old filly Ginger Brew, who improved on a synthetic surface. She finished second in the Queen’s Plate, opening leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, on Woodbine’s Polytrack.

“She was a totally different filly on Poly,” he said. “She was amazing.”

But none of the three wants to see a hasty conversion from dirt to synthetic.

Like many things, racing tends to overcorrect. We’ve done it with the distance of races, the breeding of fast 2-year-olds, the use of Lasix, whatever. Synthetic tracks look like an answer to help decrease breakdowns and maybe they are, but they aren’t the first and last answer. Synthetic seems like a no-brainer at Turfway Park, which races through sometimes brutal weather, and Keeneland, whose dirt track was more speed favoring than the left lane of the Northway. Woodbine? Probably a good idea. Toronto weather can be a little wicked. A new track such as Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., why not? You’d hate to install a dirt track and have to tear it up.

But don’t change everything. Let the synthetic tracks we have in place settle in and get used. Create a baseline for data. Watch the impact of weather, of daily use, of time. Then decide.

California mandated synthetic tracks last year, and has been trying to fix them ever since. Bad synthetic tracks, like bad dirt tracks, don’t help anything. Owners, trainers, jockeys, fans, horses and management all lose when the racing product gets shortchanged by a bad surface – witness off-the-turf races here last week.

No one wants to see other states repeat California’s steps, which is why the task force held Tuesday’s event and why jockeys and others urge caution.

“I applaud the state of California for doing what they did, but there was such a learning curve that I don’t think anyone knew what might happen,” Migliore said. “We’re gaining information all the time, but we’re in the infancy of all this. There is a lot to learn.”

For dozens of reasons, New York has no plans to convert racetracks, but the topic will be part of Thoroughbred racing’s future – in any state. The goal is safer racing, and synthetic tracks are part of the equation.

Migliore would like to see a synthetic training track at NYRA tracks. Make it an option, let trainers decide which surface to use, give horses an alternative in the morning. I like that idea, but don’t see anyone digging up Oklahoma. Trainers rave about that track as a training surface, and use it for months before and after the season. Aqueduct and Belmont? Maybe a synthetic training surface gets more traction there – it would also give the tracks a chance to monitor the track before actually having to count on it in the afternoon.

A panel member asked the jockeys about converting one of the turf courses at Saratoga and/or Belmont to synthetic, which conjured the fascinating combination of one racing plant being able to hold races on dirt, turf or synthetic. Imagine the possibilities. Turf horses would love the option of synthetic if it rained and even the dirt races might get moved to synthetic in nasty weather. Not sure I want the headaches of making those decisions, but an interesting concept.

The racehorse-safety issue takes many forms and involves an infinite number of factors. Surfaces are one, as are jockeys (who were pleased to be included in Tuesday’s event). They’re on the horses’ backs, they often make the final decision on whether to race or not, they feel the impact (both physically and mentally) of a racing breakdown.

“It happens less on a synthetic track, or seems to, but the breakdown is still devastating,” said Migliore. “I rode a horse who broke his leg on a synthetic track. He warmed up a little funny, but got better. I probably wouldn’t have ridden him on a dirt track, but he felt better over the synthetic track. I didn’t trust my instincts and I should have. We’re the last say, we’re put in a position to talk for horses.”

So they better be comfortable with a racetrack.