With last week’s decision by Keeneland to switch from a synthetic surface to dirt coming just two days after The Jockey Club released statistics on the safety of different track surfaces, the health of racehorses is again going to dominate discussions in the sport. The statistics are from the Equine Injury Database maintained by The Jockey Club, and summarize fatality rates by track surface, age of the horse and distance of a race.
Almost 2 million starts covering the five-year period ending in 2013 were analyzed. Overall, there were 1.91 racing-related fatalities per 1,000 starts. On synthetic surfaces the rate was 1.22 while the rate on dirt tracks was 2.08. The rate on turf courses was 1.63.
While the comparative statistics have been well-known for some time, the decision by Keeneland to revert to dirt coming soon after Del Mar’s decision to do the same, has already fueled controversy about the industry’s concern for the well-being of its athletes, both equine and human. And it arises just two weeks after the PETA video and accompanying article by Joe Drape in The New York Times.
As with many aspects of racing – to say nothing of life in general – things are rarely as simple as they may seem at first glance. Nationally-prominent equine veterinarians say that a dirt surface can be as safe as a synthetic one. Dr. Scott Palmer, now the Equine Medical Director for New York’s Gaming Commission, said as much during a discussion of track surfaces at the April meeting of the Equine Safety Committee of the New York Racing Association. Dr. Mary Scollay, Equine Medical Director for Kentucky’s Horse Racing Commission concurs, observing that it is a big mistake to just look at whether a surface is dirt or synthetic.
Then there is Michael “Mick” Peterson, Ph.D., the country’s preeminent expert on racing surfaces. He is a co-author of a collection of published scientific papers and data that is on The Jockey Club web site entitled, appropriately enough, “Racing Surfaces White Paper.” The complexity of the topic is evident as one reads through this document, and I do not intend to describe it in any detail. Suffice it to say that for dirt and turf courses, “moisture is the single most important variable in the maintenance of the surface.” When it is a synthetic surface, temperature becomes the key variable because of the effect it has on the wax that is a component of such a track.
If you are like me, knowledge of the effect of moisture is watching a track being harrowed and then seeing watering trucks circle the track between races. I assumed the watering was about as scientific as my using a hose in the garden. But then I learned from Dr. Peterson what he does for Churchill Downs during Derby weekend. I do not remember the exact number of points on the track that are tested for moisture content, but it was well in excess of a hundred. Similarly, the NYRA maintenance staff has a sophisticated method for measuring the moisture content around the entire track. This permits the scientific application of moisture to provide the safest surface.
One of the benefits of The Jockey Club’s statistical analysis is that it provides a detailed account, by year, of fatalities by surface, age and race distance at specific tracks. At least it does for those tracks that voluntarily provide such information. The NYRA tracks did, and so did Frank Stronach’s facilities (Santa Anita, Gulfstream and Pimlico). By contrast, Churchill Downs did not for its tracks – Churchill Downs, Calder and Arlington. That added detail provides some very useful insights. Keeping in mind that the fatality rate per 1,000 starts on all synthetic surfaces is 1.22, we learn the following:
- Woodbine in Toronto may be the safest track in North America. Its rate for each of the five years, including both turf and a synthetic surface, never exceeded 1.19 and the overall rate for the five years was 0.90.
- Keeneland’s rate on the synthetic surface ranged from a high of 1.39 in 2012 to a low of 0.43 last year.
- Del Mar’s synthetic also demonstrated a wide range over the five years, exceeding the national average three years, topping out at 2.39 in 2012, but being 0.51 in 2011 and 0.48 in 2013.
- Pimlico’s dirt exceeded the overall synthetic rate each year and Gulfstream dirt did in four of the five years.
- Santa Anita, which switched back to dirt near the end of 2010, saw its synthetic rates of 0.90 and 0.57 escalate to 2.94, 2.89 and 2.11 in the subsequent years.
- Belmont’s dirt rate fell below the synthetic standard in only one of the five years, coming in at 0.88 in 2013.
- Saratoga experienced a 1.92 in 2010, but bookended that with a 0.00 in 2009 and 0.57 in 2011. It was 1.23 and 1.29 the last two years.
- Aqueduct’s two dirt surface showed considerable variety. The inner track never fell below the rate of 2.08 for all dirt tracks. If you do not count the aberrant year of 2012 (4.02), the rates hovered in the area of 2.40 with the highest figure of that four-year grouping being 2.47 in 2013. The main track varied from 0.81 to 3.19. The rate of 0.81 is from 2013 and is about the same as the 0.87 realized in 2009.
Clearly this more detailed data demonstrates that, as a general proposition, there have been fewer fatalities on a synthetic surface. It also shows, however, that a dirt track can be as safe. The overall five-year rate for Woodbine’s synthetic was 0.95; for the Keeneland poly it was 0.97. Saratoga’s rate on its dirt surface was 0.99. Del Mar’s synthetic, by comparison, was 1.45 for the five years.
By chance I was reading a post last week on a completely different subject and came across a quote by H.L. Mencken: “For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” While it is easy to criticize the Keeneland decision, the real challenge for racing is to make every surface as safe as possible. The industry has the wherewithal to accomplish that – the only question is whether it has the will.