Grounds for a debate

Times Staff Writer

The death of Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby has brought renewed attention to the injury problem plaguing thoroughbred racehorses. In this two-part series, reporters from The Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun-Sentinel examine what is behind these breakdowns, and possible steps the industry can take to increase racehorse safety.


In the fractious sport of horse racing, even dirt can create controversy.

The issue is dirt tracks versus synthetic surfaces, a debate that has come to the forefront since the Eight Belles tragedy at the Kentucky Derby.

Many believe synthetic tracks, which include about 80% sand and a mixture of fibers and waxes, can reduce injuries and deaths among horses. Others say dirt tracks, if properly maintained, are better for the sport.


The evidence, while sometimes conflicting, favors synthetic tracks. The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation in Lexington, Ky., studied 60 tracks and found a 25% reduction in “catastrophic fractures” on synthetic surfaces. It reported an average of 1.47 deaths per 1,000 starts on synthetic surfaces and 2.07 deaths per 1,000 on dirt.

A different survey released this year at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit reported a ratio of one injury every 215 starts on synthetic surfaces compared with one every 136 on dirt.

The same survey came up with a confusing 1.95 deaths per 1,000 on synthetic compared with 1.96 on dirt.

Synthetic tracks have been used for many years in Europe but have been installed in the United States only in the last couple of years. They are in use at only nine out of 129 tracks in North America, including four in California -- Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, Del Mar and Golden Gate Fields.

The others are Arlington Park near Chicago; Turfway Park and Keeneland in Kentucky; Woodbine near Toronto; and Presque Isle in Erie, Pa. These five tracks voluntarily made the change partly because of racing days lost to cold-weather conditions.

The California Horse Racing Board voted to require most of the state’s major tracks to install the synthetic surfaces by the end of 2007 in hopes of reducing the fatality rate among horses.


Critics called it a rush to judgment, saying more experimentation was needed. They got some ammunition along the way.

The new mandated main track at Del Mar was fast in the morning, but, under the afternoon sun, became slow.

Then, in January and February, Santa Anita lost an unprecedented 11 days of racing -- although three were made up -- because of heavy rains and a drainage problem with its new track.

Repairs were made and the drainage problem went away, but the Arcadia facility, which spent nearly $11 million to install its synthetic surface last summer, will have to replace it or overhaul it this summer.

In addition, the new surfaces have raised the ire of the betting public, who find the tracks much more difficult to handicap.

At the recent short spring meeting at Keeneland, betting was down more than 12%. Contrary to public opinion, tracks want as many winners as possible so that they will keep betting more money. A few winners at long odds do little to enhance the mutuel handle.


But in the end, the sport wants to make it about the horses.

“If it’s even a little bit safer I’d like to see all the tracks go to it,” said Barbara Vanlangendonck, a Florida bloodstock agent.

Eight Belles’ death “was devastating. The loss of life was horrible and the loss of genetic material that this filly could’ve added [would have helped] the industry.”

California’s grand experiment also yielded some interesting data. There were 2.81 fatalities per 1,000 starts at Santa Anita from July 2004 to April 2007. That number dropped to 1.71 after the synthetic track was installed. The number has gone from 2.87 to 0.97 at Hollywood Park.

Opponents of synthetic tracks say fatalities during morning training sessions have not been reduced, although there is no reliable data to either back this claim or refute it.

“I think it’s fine to train on, but I don’t think it’s a good surface to race on,” said trainer John Shirreffs, who has been among the more outspoken critics. “For horses to run well, whether it’s on dirt or turf, they need to have a bottom, something to push off of. Synthetic surfaces don’t have a firm bottom for the horse to get a hold, so they really struggle on it.

“As for the injury factor, you have soft-tissue injuries and hind-end problems on synthetic surfaces. A lot of young horses don’t like it because it has the give but not the bounce-back factor.”


But despite the strength of the figures, most racetracks, including the three that play host to the Triple Crown -- Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park -- have not made the switch.

Some, such as Tampa Bay Downs in Florida, are very comfortable with their position.

“There’ll be no discussion here,” said Margo Flynn, the track’s vice president for marketing and publicity. “We have a dirt surface that has an exceedingly low breakdown rate.”

Flynn said that only two horses were euthanized at the track in their winter meeting.

But regardless of whether you’re in Tampa, Los Angeles, Baltimore or Louisville, the sight of the horse ambulance pulling onto a track is a sickening feeling to horse racing fans.

“Unfortunately, none of these tracks can and will eliminate fatalities,” said Richard Shapiro, head of the California Horse Racing Board. “[Injuries] will occur for a variety of reasons even if horses raced on air.”


Sandra McKee and Ken Murray of the Baltimore Sun, Michael Cunningham of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Neil Milbert of the Chicago Tribune and Tania Ganguli of the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.