JC / Railbird

An Inconvenient Truth

Nick Nicholson, retiring president of Keeneland:

There is a difference in dirt, turf and synthetic, and the turf and synthetic are safer. We should not as an industry ignore that fact because it’s an inconvenient truth. If you care about riders and you care about horses you have to continue on the journey of safer racing surfaces. This is not subject to the whim of a few people, including me. It’s an industry responsibility. Does that mean we have to continue to make better dirt tracks? Sure. Shame on us that we haven’t done it for 50 years.

Following California’s mandate and the three-year debacle that was Santa Anita’s installation(s) of synthetic(s), the movement toward synthetic surfaces in the United States pretty much came to an end. As a matter for discussion, synthetics are dead. No track has converted in years. Keeneland, which has experienced great success with its Polytrack, dissolved its partnership with the company that made the surface in late 2011, citing market conditions.

What a shame.


Synthetics tracks do indeed have fewer catastrophic breakdowns, but, at least according to the anecdotal evidence, more muscle and tendon injuries in training. Until we see well-done scientific studies showing that synth is, overall, safer than dirt, it’s understandable that no one is in a rush to convert.

Posted by Steve Zorn on August 26, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

These last few interviews with NN have been refreshing. He had to play a political game and watch what he said. Now, on his way out he can be more honest.

Keeneland has proven, without a doubt, imo, that synthetic surfaces are much safer. And, the way it’s played the last few years, horseplayer concerns were overblown.

Wonderful racetrack, beautiful place. And they had a good CEO.


Posted by Dean on August 26, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

Maybe after 20 or 30 years of “scientific” data that shows the same horses suffering catastrophic breakdowns at twice the rate on dirt as on synthetic, then maybe the Steve Zorn’s of the world will change their mind.

I won’t hold my breath though.

Cry about “scientific” data till the cows home. Then, in the same sentence no less, cite that tired anecdotal “evidence” about more muscle and tendon issues.

No one’s in a rush to do anything in horse racing. When the *actual* evidence is plain as day *REAL*, who would want to save horses lives and perhaps have a couple less crippled jocks along the way too?

Can’t have that. Nick Zito said God made dirt.

Posted by o_crunk on August 27, 2012 @ 8:14 am

Synthetic seemed like a good idea at the time. Then all these horses started having hind-end injuries. That’s why the enthusiasm went away. Nobody in racing wants dead horses. But we don’t want horses that can’t race, either. Maybe Michael Dickinson’s Tapeta is the right answer, but uninformed enthusiasm for any synthetic surface doesn’t help.

Failing to adopt the latest fad doesn’t mean one is opposed to change — just to uninformed change.

Posted by Steve Zorn on August 27, 2012 @ 9:11 am

Synthetic seemed like a good idea at the time.

As Nicholson notes in the interview, synthetic will prove to be a better idea over time (as in better than just doing nothing about surfaces, which seems to be the industry alternative to the “synthetic idea” – “need more data”, “we need to do another scientific study on surfaces”). It’s an annuity that will pay year after year.

I also challenge the idea that there ever was “enthusiasm” for synthetics. As Nicholson correctly notes, there’s never been any “enthusiasm” from the big-wigs in NY for anything synthetic related. Not in 2006 or now in 2012. Big guys like Baffert out West were against synthetics from the beginning – quicker than you could say “hind end injury”. They’ve cheered on the changes back to dirt (in Baffert’s case, even lobbying for the change) at Santa Anita yet the data clearly shows this change has cost horses lives.

I used to be against synthetics but the data has won me over. The racing and betting is better too once one has opened their mind to the handicapping angles.

I don’t think I’ve adopted to a fad but I certainly think you’ve clearly made up your mind against synthetics. I wouldn’t count it out just yet as long as that annuity keeps paying year after year.

Posted by o_crunk on August 27, 2012 @ 10:01 am

Can these fragile critters really be only a few dozen generations down from the beasts who tore across the sinkholes, rock outcrops, rivers and ridges of the Nashville Basin while carrying a full sized rider plus “toys?” Granted that most did not retire at three whether sent to stud or not.

Posted by jim culpepper on August 27, 2012 @ 10:09 am

“It’s an annuity that will pay year after year.”

That’s a good way of putting it, and taken together with Nicholson’s point about “no final victories because wherever you are, you have to get better,” a productive way forward.

Posted by Jessica on August 27, 2012 @ 12:04 pm