At the end of last summer’s Del Mar thoroughbred racing meet, one somber statistic overshadowed all others: 19 horses were dead, victims of catastrophic injuries at the track.
One veteran horseman described the seaside venue that season as “a killing field.” But incidents of track fatalities were hardly unique to Del Mar.
Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro’s stunning breakdown at last year’s Preakness already had brought the dark side of thoroughbred horse racing to the front pages of newspapers around the world.
And with 240 horse deaths on state tracks from 2003 to 2005, the California Horse Racing Board had ordered mandatory state track improvements.
That order required replacement of inconsistent dirt-racing surfaces with more uniform and safer artificial turf. The statewide makeover is nearly complete, and Del Mar is set to open the 2007 racing season today with its new $9-million synthetic track -- but not without lingering controversy.
Substantial questions have been raised by horsemen and other racing executives surveyed by The Times over whether Del Mar’s new track is safe enough.
Even before the first furlong of racing at the San Diego County site, flaws were discovered in the newly installed track. Costly repairs were completed last week, but on Monday some trainers canceled workouts after questioning the repaired track’s surprising firmness -- a condition that was corrected by Tuesday.
Continuing concerns about the track’s ability to hold up under heavy daily use also have prompted Del Mar officials to reduce the number of horses permitted in their stables this season.
Del Mar’s dirt track was replaced this year with a synthetic surface developed by Englishman Martin Collins called Polytrack, a 7-inch-deep mixture of silica sand, recycled rubber, fibers and wax covering a blacktop base and drainage system.
Such artificial surfaces have been successfully used in the United Kingdom, but in North America they have encountered criticism and complaints.
In Kentucky and Canada, for example, troubles with other Polytrack-installed surfaces forced races to be canceled and required expensive alterations. In cold weather, the material tended to clump in the horses’ hoofs, prompting some trainers to spray them with cooking oil before races.
Those problems were factors leading Hollywood Park and Santa Anita to hire rival manufacturer Cushion Track, according to executives of the two Los Angeles County tracks.
“America has been a very difficult market,” conceded Polytrack inventor Collins.
Some of Collins’ frustration may be directed at California Coastal Commission standards and environmental concerns that forced Del Mar to install a version of Polytrack without an ingredient called “jelly cable.”
The substance is a waste product imported from China -- chopped-up, lubricant-coated plastic previously used to insulate stripped copper wire. It was used in Polytrack turf installed at Chicago’s Arlington Park and at Keeneland Race Course in Kentucky, where officials call the racing surface “outstanding.”
Arlington’s racing deaths declined from 14 in 2006 on a dirt surface to three racing on Polytrack, a track spokesman said.
But at Del Mar -- where, as its famous advertising slogan declares, “the turf meets the surf” -- concerns about copper contaminants fouling the shoreline arose after tests detected “higher levels of copper” in track water runoff.
Without the jelly cable, Del Mar’s new surface reportedly became “loose” and “soupy” in the warmer afternoon hours, forcing eleventh-hour repairs.
Track officials, exercising further caution in advance of a 43-day meet, informed owners and trainers that they would stable only 2,200 horses during the race meet this year, a reduction of about 200 horses.
“We want to give this track the best chance we can give it,” Del Mar Executive Vice President Craig Fravel said. “I believe synthetic tracks are the best thing that has ever happened to horse racing.”
So, Del Mar braces -- aware of problems with its track but confident that the artificial turf is safer than its old dirt surface.
Elsewhere, unhappy customers add a dose of caution to expectations.
“We’re not satisfied with [Polytrack] after spending more than $10 million,” said Jamie Martin, a spokesman for the company that operates the Woodbine horse racing track in Toronto.
“The track was bad, really dusty. It didn’t perform. It wasn’t what we paid for.”
David Willmot, Woodbine’s president and chief executive, said before a costly renovation procedure was initiated in May that his track was “broken.” He complained openly that “we paid for a Cadillac and got a Chevrolet.”
Both Woodbine and Kentucky’s Turfway race track operated during periods of cold weather, but Canadian officials said wax components in their Polytrack turf broke down even before the cold snap.
At Turfway, the chief complaint was excessive kickback, or loose track material that flew up and pelted horses and riders during races.
“It looked like the covered-wagon days,” one racing executive said.
Turfway veterinarian John Piehowicz blamed the artificial turf for three fatal injuries to horses and six damaged knees. He told the Louisville Courier-Journal that when balled-up particles of artificial turf clumped in the horses’ hoofs, they hit the ground unevenly.
One jockey said it was as if the horses were trying to walk on stilts. The result was a rash of sprains and broken bones, some requiring the animals to be euthanized.
The Turfway track initially boasted a dramatic drop in horse fatalities after the switch from dirt to the synthetic surface declining from 24 deaths on dirt in 2004-05 to three on the new Polytrack surface in 2005-06.
However, there have been 14 fatal breakdowns in the latest meets, prompting plans to re-wax the surface in August.
“We’ll continue to make steps to improve this track,” Turfway President Bob Elliston said. He gave fellow track officials credit for having “the guts to move forward” laying artificial tracks even though the results have not been perfect.
But Del Mar’s decision to install Polytrack despite known problems at the Kentucky and Canada tracks has puzzled other Southern California track officials.
It also has raised questions about potential conflicts of interest.
Polytrack’s North American distributor is Keeneland, also an owner of Turfway in Kentucky. And Del Mar’s Fravel is an acknowledged longtime friend of Keeneland President and Chief Executive Nick Nicholson. Both men dismissed suggestions of favoritism.
“That’s beyond absurd,” Nicholson said. “You can argue about the merits of the surface, but you can’t argue about the [selection] process.”
Fravel said he was sensitive to appearances of a conflict of interest and took himself off the selection committee. He said he made no recommendations and did no lobbying on behalf of his friend’s product.
“I don’t think [the friendship] played any role,” Fravel said.
Fravel did, however, help design the bidding specifications, he told The Times. One of those specs, giving preference to bidders with five or more prior installations, favored Polytrack over newer competitors, including Cushion Track, which at that time had just installed its first track surface at Hollywood Park.
The Del Mar selection committee picked Polytrack on Nov. 20. By then, Hollywood Park had operated on rival Cushion Track for only 18 days, not enough time to judge its relative quality, Del Mar officials said.
Today, Hollywood Park officials are giving the rival turf good reviews. President Jack Liebau said “there’s no question” his new Cushion Track “is better and safer than dirt.” He reported four horse fatalities in a 63-day meet.
Santa Anita chose Cushion Track this year and installation is underway.
Santa Anita President Ron Charles said a key factor in the decision was the consistency of having almost identical racing surfaces at his track and Hollywood Park.
“We believe the horsemen will appreciate this consistency,” Charles said.
With all sides of the turf rivalry agreeing on the prime goal -- improved safety for horses and riders -- the move to artificial racing surfaces is certain to spread, even as the manufacturers are working out the bugs and flaws.
At Del Mar last week, watching the horses train on his new turf, Polytrack’s Collins acknowledged the pressure.
“We are on a learning curve here,” he said. “The waxes alter in hot and cold temperatures. It swells in the hot and tightens in the cold.... We never had to deal with [such variables] in England. It’s a very difficult job.”
Waiting for all the problems to be solved is not acceptable to Keeneland’s Nicholson.
But, “if you want racing in California to be perfect, I’d say don’t race for 10 years, and wait for the rest of us to work out the kinks,” he said.