JC / Railbird

You Say Safe, I Say Deadly

Bob Baffert on the verge of his ninth Santa Anita training title:

“Getting back to the dirt was a big plus, and I have a pretty strong barn now which we were able to build up again. I’ve got no complaints, and it’s been a very safe meet.”

For Baffert’s barn, perhaps, aside from Always a Princess’ career-ending injury in the Santa Margarita. But it’s hardly been a safe meet for the overall horse population; on-track injury and fatality rates at Santa Anita have returned to the ugly level that helped spur the installation of synthetics in California.


Baffert is clearly using the word “safe” in regards to his bank account here.

California – notably slack-to-encouraging on the doping front even by the standards of American racing – was in serious danger of being progressive with its move from extremely speed-favoring dirt to synth for a while, luckily the forces that have stood racing in such good stead over the last couple of decades ultimately prevailed and Cal is thus back to its leadership role in racing know-nothingism.

How was that old saying? “If at first you don’t succeed, never ever try to improve again”?

Posted by malcer on April 2, 2011 @ 6:12 pm

Unfortunately, fatality rates haven’t returned to their old levels, they are much worse than that. This surface is much faster/unsafe than anything we have seen previous. Track records have been set at least three times by maidens/maiden claimers and several sprints have been run in under 1:08. What’s criminal is this problem was obvious from day one and Santa Anita can’t or won’t slow the surface down. This is good for Baffert’s speed types, but a catastrophe for many of the brave animals that have fallen.

Posted by Nancy Taylor on April 2, 2011 @ 6:39 pm

I am in no way defending this particular track surface, but deep inferences about dirt vs. synthetic cannot be made from statistics gathered during this one meet.

Stronach likely cut corners; there was a rare rain event early in the meet; and virtually all runners were making a difficult switch from radically different surfaces.

Making pronouncements based on a such a small and questionable data-set is tantamount to predicting next month’s weather based on the past few days.

Posted by Tinky on April 3, 2011 @ 10:54 am

You are right regarding small sample size ofr one particular meet. However, the national synthetic vs dirt safety stats released in December (ironically just before SA unveiled their vew dirt surface) deemed the lower fatality rates on synthetic vs dirt to be “statistically significant”. In betting terms it means if you bet synthetics were safer than dirt at odds of 1-20, that would be an overlay.

Posted by RonM on April 3, 2011 @ 7:40 pm

Sorry Ron, but that study is clearly flawed given the age of the vast majority of dirt tracks around the country. I am not arguing that dirt is necessarily as safe as synthetics, but as any experienced horseman will tell you, there are trade-offs (i.e. more soft-tissue injuries on synthetic, more skeletal injuries on dirt).

So you are actually wrong to suggest that synthetics are “safer”, given that rate of fatalities is only one metric.

Posted by Tinky on April 3, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

I could see bringing this up had Baffert not been harping the same exact song and dance all the way through. But indeed his was the loudest voice among trainers in protest of the illconceived decision to force synthetic surfaces upon California tracks.

Baffert deserves high marks for having endured the stupidity and for having re-ascended to the throne among California trainers upon reversal of the travesty that was synthetic surfaces in California.

At issue here is not whether the synthetic surfaces are safe (see Tapeta for clarity about that), the point of contention is that it was entirely wrong that California tracks were forced to make the switch at a point where there was almost zero data to support such a move.

This was single-handedly the fault of one Richard Shapiro who, thankfully, got his when it was exposed that he is stupid enough to have fallen for Bernie Madoff’s schemes.

Even if Shapiro gets back half of the money he lost, he’ll never overcome the fact that his stupidity has been highlighted on numerous fronts.

Sometimes the bad guys get their just due…

Posted by Cadiddlehopper on April 3, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

Baffert wanted dirt, Baffert got dirt. So he clearly has to trumpet its virtues, regardless of the carnage going on around him.


Posted by PTP on April 3, 2011 @ 11:20 pm

Tinky trotted out the same, tired excuse others have used before, “that study is clearly flawed given the age of the vast majority of dirt tracks around the country.”

Earth to Tinky: Santa Anita is a brand new track. To opine that “Stronach likely cut corners” is at odds with what he did building the Palm Meadows Training Track in Florida–it is state of the art. It’s preposterous to believe he would do less with a surface on which horses were going to race.

The best evidence we have is clear: IN GENERAL, synthetics seem safer, in terms of catastrophic injuries. What we need to do is find out why some old dirt tracks, like Saratoga, is as safe, or safer, than the best synthetics.

It’s also clear dirt racing is America’s game, hence the need to make it as safe as possible. Nevertheless, we owe it to Thoroughbreds to provide them with the best surface possible.

Posted by Nick Kling on April 4, 2011 @ 8:02 am

Sorry for the grammar typo. It should be “are as safe.”

Posted by Nick Kling on April 4, 2011 @ 8:03 am

Nick –

If you aren’t aware of the rush job done at Santa Anita, nor the effect that the exceptional rains had during the final stages of the process, then you should retire from public commentary.

Furthermore, the irony couldn’t be deeper as you’ve essentially proven my point by mentioning that some dirt tracks are just as safe as synthetics. That alone demolishes the notion that synthetics are necessarily intrinsically safer.

Posted by Tinky on April 4, 2011 @ 9:19 am

Fatalities are only one metric of safety??
Using that logic i should be just as happy when my 6-5 shot pays to show as i should hitting the pick 6.
As John McEnroe said: You cannot be serious ;-) !!

Posted by RonM on April 4, 2011 @ 10:13 am


I’m aware of the rain, and the speed at which the track was installed. I’m also aware that 99.9 percent of trainers, jockeys, and racing officials in SoCal who commented on the track were effusive in their praise of the new surface. If they had been any more enthusiastic, they might have burst.

In fact, I can’t recall a single negative complaint about the track, or the way in which it was installed, until the horse ambulance began its all-to-frequent runs. If you have evidence of any, I’d love to hear or see it.

In addition, if you carefully read my comment above, it does not say all synthetics are intrinsically safer. It says, they have been shown to be safer given the typical way with which both surfaces have been managed. I’d add that evidence continues to mount that Tapeta is far superior to other synthetics and may prove to be a game-changer in terms of horse and rider safety.

A strip of bacon isn’t intrinsically more harmful to your health than an apple till you eat one.

Posted by Nick Kling on April 4, 2011 @ 10:14 am

I’m a lifelong fan of racing, especially Santa Anita, and while I’m not a big money horseplayer, I am a casual handicapper and bettor and am good for 6-8 visits during the winter meet. And as a fan, I’ve got to say that you can parse and discuss sample sizes until you’re blue in the face. With the synthetic track, I never saw a horse die or injure itself. I have seen a breakdown every single time I’ve attended the current meet so far. That’s not to say that no horse ever injured itself on synth, or that horses die every day at the current meet. Just noting patterns. And from where I sit, it looks damned ugly. The fact that SA is unwilling or unable to make the surface as safe as the previous synthetic incarnations is as maddening as it depressing.

Posted by LaurieK on April 4, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

“there was a rare rain event early in the meet”

Indeed, they’ve had 23″ alone just this meet and that’s as good a dowsing as anybody can handle….

I think what people are expecting, is some sort of miracle where no horses ever break down! That will only happen when horse racing ceases. Until then it still has to be one of the ugly injustices that happens. Dirt or otherwise.

Lisa J

Posted by Lisa J on April 4, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

From one who has been around the racetrack since the early 1960s, I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that what Lisa J. alludes to, “horse racing ceas[ing],” is not a bad idea.

Posted by Steve on April 4, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

Nick –

I seem to recall that you fashion yourself a journalist of sorts. If that is the case, and you are basing your understanding of the Santa Anita surface on published comments by trainers, then you ought to find another line of work.

If you want to know what really happened early in the meet, try contacting someone who is aware of the tests that were done on the composition of the top layer. It was supposed to be very high in sand content vs. clay. After the severe storms, a great deal of sand was washed away, and the ratio was thrown badly off. That high clay content is what primarily accounts for the super-fast times (and probably for more than a few breakdowns, as well).

Do some homework, rather than regurgitating obviously dubious public pronouncements.

Posted by Tinky on April 4, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

Wonder why Baffert is now working almost all runners over at Hollywood Park? This track has been very unsafe. I know of a half dozen horses who have been put down after coming out of races in such bad shape the owners did not want to spend the money to try and bring them back or save them. The Santa Anita surface is a disgrace.

Posted by Pete Martinson on April 5, 2011 @ 1:28 pm