JC / Railbird

The Synth Difference

Matt Hegarty reporting from the Racehorse Welfare and Safety Summit:

The latest analysis of the data also continued to show a statistically significant difference between the rate of catastrophic injuries on artificial surfaces when compared with dirt surfaces and turf surfaces. Over the past three years, horses running on synthetic surfaces have suffered catastrophic injuries at a rate of 1.3 per 1,000 starts, whereas horses running on turf had a 1.6 rate and dirt horses had a 2.0 rate, slightly higher than the overall rate of 1.9, according to researchers.

We can’t keep ignoring the facts: Synthetic surfaces are safer. Any serious discussion about or initiative for reducing fatalities must include synthetics.


I don’t think the industry is ignoring the facts. The real world translation of these factual statistics just doesn’t carry the same statistical significance.
In two weeks at Keeneland (about 1,000 races) one horse will die.
In two weeks at Churchill, two horses will die.
If the one horse dies at Keeneland in front of 12,000 on College Friday, doesn’t it theoretically hurt the game just as badly as the two horses who died at Churchill in front of (most likely) 10,000 combined regulars?
Fact is, the surface is safer, but not completely safe. There’s more statistical significance between risks to cheap horses and expensive horses. Which makes more sense for a track like Suffolk Downs? Spend millions on a synthetic track to save one horse every two weeks that was a high risk regardless of surface, or invest the same amount in purses that (structured correctly) hopefully crowd out that risky doomed horse?

Posted by Rolly Hoyt on October 17, 2012 @ 10:53 am

Rolly, are you saying that the value of reducing fatalities lies in sparing the feelings of people watching, not the animal? I’d say a 100% difference in the fatality rate is a big deal, regardless of crowd size. It’s a cold calculation to consign even one horse to death because there aren’t enough people in the grandstand to care.

You’re right — Dr. Parkin’s EID analysis proves that high-risk horses are risks regardless of surface, and that those horses can be identified through risk profiling — which is why I’m not advocating wholesale abandonment of dirt, just that synthetic surfaces be part of any comprehensive approach to improving safety, *especially* at tracks that have large populations of risky horses, such as Suffolk Downs. Or Aqueduct, where the task force recommendation to consider installing a synthetic surface was taken up and championed by exactly no one in New York racing.

Structuring purses to crowd out the risky horses isn’t the full answer, any more than a synthetic surface is — it’s all of a piece. If the industry wasn’t ignoring the stats, synthetics would still be a significant part of the conversation about safety, and the synthetic movement wouldn’t have stalled in 2010.

Posted by Jessica on October 17, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

Since there are only about 11 people watching nightly live at Mountaineer we should ship all the lame horses there. If 30 or 40 horses a week are killed, only about 50 people will see it.


Posted by Dean on October 17, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

It is my understanding that although the synthetic track may not result in as many deaths, it leads to a lot more injuries that sideline them. I got this info from a track worker who is present at workouts as well as the actual race.

Posted by kfmccann on October 17, 2012 @ 10:00 pm

I think that gets to a point Dr. Larry Bramlage made in his Keeneland summit presentation — horses should be exercised on multiple surfaces. I haven’t read or heard that synthetics cause more injuries, just that they cause different injuries (more soft issue problems).

Something I learned at Woodbine that I thought was interesting — they have a dirt training track that trainers like to use for galloping and working, even though horses race over Polytrack. Kind of the reverse of a facility like Fair Hill, where horses gallop over Tapeta and then are shipped elsewhere to race on dirt. It makes me wonder, is the apparent success of both approaches due to horses not always being on the same surface for exercise and racing, regardless of what that surface is? Bramlage suggests that’s so.

Posted by Jessica on October 19, 2012 @ 8:35 am