Here we go again. Most of the time, horse rating is ignored by the national media. There are exceptions, of course. When an American Pharoah or Justify is running for Triple Crown glory, the national media converges; and, when that happens, the sport basks in the glow.
There is the opposite side when negativity takes over and garners the headlines. The negative news is coming from Santa Anita Park, where, since Christmas, 20 horses have died on the new track, an average of 2.51 deaths per 1,000 starts. Statistically, that may not seem like a lot, but it is and when that happens, everybody notices.
Some have died in racing and others in training, but it’s caused enough alarm for the track to close so the surfaces could be inspected. A day after it reopened, the 21st fatality occurred.
We have been here before. Lawmakers in California, concerned about horse safety, mandated in 2003 that tracks install synthetic surfaces. Del Mar, Golden Gate and Santa Anita, as well as the now closed Hollywood Park went from dirt to synthetic and guess what? Track fatalities dropped.
From 2004 to 2006, there were 3.09 fatalities per 1,000 starts on the California tracks. After synthetic surfaces were installed, the number dropped to 1.94. In comparison, there were 2.4 fatalities on the turf.
It looked like synthetic tracks—usually Tapeta or Polytrack—might catch on. Woodbine, Turfway, Arlington, and Keeneland all joined in and installed synthetics and fatalities kept decreasing.
From 2009-2014, there were 2.07 deaths per 1,000 starts on dirt; 1.65 on turf and 1.22 on synthetic. Keeneland saw a precipitous drop from 1.98 to 0.33. Santa Anita saw its fatality rate drop to 0.90. It looked like things were heading in the right direction. Even PETA was for them, fairly quiet.
As more and more synthetic surfaces emerged, so too, did the complaining. Handicappers couldn’t figure out biases on synthetic; others thought synthetic played more like turf and more turf horses seemed to be having success on Polytrack and Tapeta. Trainers and owners didn’t like it because it was fake and races like the Bluegrass Stakes and Santa Anita Derby, key prep races for the Kentucky Derby were not getting the strong fields as tracks that raced on dirt.
Santa Anita hosted the 2008 and 2009 Breeders Cup on its synthetic surface and horse racing fans didn’t seem to mind when, in the 2009 Breeder’s Cup Classic, the fabulous filly Zenyatta ran down all the boys to win in glorious fashion.
Joe Drape has covered horse racing for the New York Times for what seems like forever. He did some research and found that field sizes did not decrease on synthetic tracks nor did betting. It seemed like as long as there was a wager and money to make, handicappers were going to do their best to figure it out.
This is when horse racing might have stubbed its toe. Fatalities were down, betting and field sizes remained consistent, but the bellyaching continued. The big trainers and owners didn’t want to run on “fake dirt,” and the historians were struggling with comparing the great dirt horses with the potential of great synthetic horses. Some claimed that synthetic surfaces caused more soft tissue injuries than dirt. Supporters of the fake dirt claimed a soft tissue injury was much better than a fractured leg. Soft tissue injuries are no joke; they don’t cause the horse to be euthanized, but for most, a soft tissue injury ends a racing career.
The debate was on. The problem was the lack of uniformity. The Triple Crown races were dirt races; Saratoga, Churchill, Belmont and Gulfstream were dirt tracks while Keeneland, Santa Anita and Del Mar countered with synthetic. If horse racing had a national governing body, they could have made all tracks switch to the safer surface. If all tracks were synthetic, then it would get easier to train, handicap and run races.
As we know, that didn’t happen. In 2010, Santa Anita went back to dirt. They were afraid that the Breeder’s Cup wouldn’t return, so dirt was brought back and guess what happened? Fatalities went up.
From 2010-2013, Santa Anita, which had a 0.90 fatality rate on synthetics, saw its numbers spike to 3.45 then down to 2.94, 2.89 and 2.11 respectively. But, they got the Breeder’s Cup back in 2014 and 2016 and Del Mar, which also went back to dirt in 2015, hosted in 2017.
Saratoga is the summer place to be, and because over 1 million fans flock to the Spa over its 40-day meet, eyes are watching. In 2015, there were 13 fatalities. That number rose to 16 in ’16 and then 21 in ’17, before dropping to 11 in 2018. We need to be fair. Not all these fatalities occurred in races in front of 35,000 fans. Some occurred in training while others died in the barns. Still, when horses die at prominent meets and venues, those that think horse racing is inhumane are out in full force. The February breakdown at Aqueduct goes relatively unnoticed, but an August one at Saratoga draws PETA and others.
What if all tracks agreed to switch to Tapeta? Or Polytrack? Would you have abandoned your love of horse racing? Or, would you have adapted and figured it out? I’m not advocating for synthetics, but to me, the numbers are glaring and stark and simple—there are fewer deaths on tracks that have synthetic racing surfaces.
What I hated was the inconsistency. Saratoga was dirt, yet Del Mar was synthetic. We see this in baseball—one league makes pitchers bat, the other uses designated hitters. Personally, I prefer the DH, but I want one rule for both leagues. The same can be said for horse racing. If every track had synthetic, Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott would have adjusted, but it isn’t easy running a horse on Tapeta and then on dirt. Something had to give and in the end, the industry went with tradition and most tracks chose dirt.
Today, we are down to five—in addition to Woodbine; Arlington, Presque Isle (PA), Turfway and Golden Gate Fields (CA) are the only tracks in North America running on synthetics. Woodbine is the Canadian track and because of that, has a good stable of horses each year. The Queen’s Plate is Canada’s most prestigious race. It’s been run 158 times and if your horse is Canadian bred, it’s THE race to win.
Turfway Park does host the Jeff Ruby Steaks (formerly the Spiral Stakes) and the winning horse does get 20 points toward Kentucky Derby qualification, but the remaining tracks host, for the most part, claiming and small pursed allowance races. Animal Kingdom did prove in 2011 that a horse can win a Derby prep on synthetic and then win the Derby on dirt when he did the Spiral-Derby double.
I would have liked ALL tracks to give synthetics a try. What if all tracks saw equine fatalities decrease? If the Kentucky Derby, the Travers and the Breeder’s Cup Classic were all run on Tapeta or Polytrack, would the naysayers have gone away?
Horse racing is what it is. Tracks compete to get the best horses they can. Saratoga competes against Del Mar; Keeneland against Belmont and Finger Lakes battles Thistledown. For the purists, the decision was easy—dirt. Others thought about safety and chose—fake dirt.
We know that horses need to run to make their connections money. A horse that isn’t running is costing its owner money. But sports are trying to take the athlete into consideration. The NBA limited the number of back-to-back games and the NFL has made several rule changes to help reduce concussions. The new Alliance of American Football has outlawed kickoffs.
It looked like horse racing was at the forefront of the movement. Synthetic tracks were installed and equine fatalities went down. But in the end, the sport catered to the humans; the ones that spend the money in the game. I’m not saying what they did was wrong, but once again, it would have been interesting to see what would have happened had Saratoga and Churchill switched to a synthetic surface. My bet is that all would have followed suit, but that didn’t happen and now all but five are running on dirt.
For now, Santa Anita is taking the heat. As expected, there are groups that are calling for the end of horse racing—everywhere—not just Santa Anita. The last thing the sport needs is to have a big crowd and to see the tent go up to indicate an euthanization of a horse. Many that see that never return.
I’m not sure seeing 21 horses perish at Santa Anita since December 26 will lead to significant reform in the industry. Sixteen years ago, it looked like significant reform was being made, but 10 years later, it stalled/ended.
As they say, shutting the barn door after the horses have left prevents nothing.