Death is a sad but common part of thoroughbred racing, but in California the sight of medical vans on racetracks was a grim reminder that this state had problems far greater than others.
In May 2006, the California Horse Racing Board, whose job it is to ensure fair and safe racing in the state, identified the dirt surface as a problem. It mandated that all the main thoroughbred tracks install what was believed to be a much safer synthetic surface by the end of the following year.
In the three years since the conversion, 26 horses have died at Del Mar alone. That is an improvement -- 19 died at the seaside track near San Diego during 2006. From July 1, 2007 to July 30, 2008, there were 31 horse deaths on synthetics at Santa Anita and 38 at Hollywood Park.
There remains a fierce debate within the industry as to the success of the experiment. So much so that the board has relaxed its stance, saying it would now probably allow any track to switch back to dirt if it wants to. The tracks have already spent $40 million to make the change to the synthetic surface, so finding more money to revert back may be difficult for an already struggling industry.
Despite some statistics that show there have been fewer fatalities during races, there is no consensus among owners and trainers that the switch to the synthetic surface has made any difference in preventing the deaths of thoroughbreds. Medical research has shown an increase in soft-tissue injuries, and this summer Del Mar had more deaths than usual during training.
It is in this environment of second-guessing and recriminations that the Breeders' Cup, thoroughbred racing's world championship, returns to Santa Anita today and Saturday to be run on a Pro-Ride synthetic surface. But the controversy remains. The sport's most visible horse, the 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra, is not running in this event because her owner, Jess Jackson, said he had no intention of "running on plastic."
Synthetic tracks are a mixture of sand, rubber and synthetic fibers. They contain wax or polymer-based binders to cushion and bind the materials.
The man who headed the switch from dirt to synthetics, former CHRB chairman Richard Shapiro, says now, "I feel clearly I was sold a bill of goods. In 20-20 hindsight, if it was today, I wouldn't have pushed toward the mandate. Am I disappointed? Absolutely."
Among the unexpected consequences:
* Synthetic tracks turned out to be anything but maintenance free.
* Hind-leg injuries to horses running on synthetic surfaces are far more prevalent than on dirt.
* Predictions of horses being sent from the East Coast to run on synthetic tracks in California to help a dwindling racing population haven't worked out.
* Fields keep getting smaller, alienating bettors and helping produce a drop in wagering.
"Originally, we thought it was going to be a panacea for racing, a real breakthrough," said John Harris, chairman of the CHRB. "It hasn't turned out as well, but it is not a big failure as some say."
Stuck in the middle of the disagreement is Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the CHRB.
"It's like discussing abortion or gun control," Arthur said. "You can't get an unemotional discussion. You're on one side or the other. There are promising aspects of synthetic surfaces and frustrating aspects. The biggest problem has been they have been inconsistent from day to day, which drives trainers crazy."
Arthur said statistics he compiled for the CHRB show a 40% drop in fatalities during races at synthetic tracks when compared to dirt tracks from Jan. 1, 2004, through Sept. 9 of this year, but he added there has not been similar improvement in training workouts, and the information is harder to analyze.
What has surprised many is how quickly a synthetic track can change because of weather conditions. Temperature and humidity affect the synthetic mixture, and that inconsistency has left owners, jockeys, handicappers and maintenance crews guessing what's going to happen next.
"There's still a mystery to it," said Craig Fravel, executive vice president at Del Mar.
The mystery becomes even more difficult to solve when you realize each of the three main tracks in Southern California put in different composite materials so there is no common information base that can be shared.
Critics say synthetic surfaces have not made a significant impact in improving safety, and they cite as evidence the 37-day Del Mar summer meeting in which 12 horses were euthanized because of injuries on the Polytrack, eight of which occurred during morning training sessions.
The sudden spike in horse deaths -- there were eight during last year's 43-day Del Mar meeting and six in 2007 -- also occurred on dirt tracks, and that has left horsemen perplexed, because synthetic surfaces were marketed as a solution to the catastrophic injury dilemma that produced 3.09 fatalities per 1,000 starts in California from 2004 until 2007, according to the Kentucky Equine Review.
But tracks are in no financial condition to rush forward and spend millions on returning to a dirt surface.
The owner of Santa Anita and Northern California-based Golden Gate Fields, Magna Entertainment Corp, filed for bankruptcy protection. The owner of Hollywood Park has plans to demolish its track and replace it with houses and condos.
There have been seven horse fatalities during this Oak Tree meeting, three on the turf, three on the Pro-Ride and one from a gate incident, with none during training.
Last year's Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita produced no major injuries among the 156 horses, according to Sherwood Chillingworth, executive vice president of the Oak Tree Racing Assn.
In July of last year, Santa Anita removed its Cushion Track and replaced it with the Australia-based Pro-Ride surface that relies on polymer binding because of drainage issues. More work was done last January after trainer complaints.
Arthur continues to work toward coming up with comprehensive standards and statistics that would provide documentation on synthetic surfaces, from using precise weather data to using sophisticated biomechanical testing equipment.
The CHRB's innovative Postmortem Examination Program -- in which any horse that dies at a state race track must be sent to UC Davis for review -- has already produced the first documented evidence that horses running on synthetic tracks are receiving more hind-leg injuries than on dirt surfaces.
In preliminary statistics compiled from 2008, 19 thoroughbreds out of 111 that died on synthetic tracks had hind-leg injuries. There was only one death out of 65 on dirt attributed to a hind-leg injury. Overall, there were 351 deaths for all breeds in California in 2008.
Dr. Hailu Kinde, who oversees the UC Davis program, said he doesn't know whether synthetic tracks are safer than dirt for thoroughbred horses.
"At this point, I can't say. We have to analyze the data with additional information from the field," he said.
Trainer Darrell Vienna said he believes everyone had the right intentions when the decision was made to mandate synthetics.
"Three years ago, you had a consensus of hope," he said. "Now, experience shows they had been mistaken, overexaggerated or failed."