Synthetic Track Surfaces Yield Synthetic Benefits

by Horstradamus

posted on March 20, 2008 in Educational Articles, General Discussion, News | 1 Comment >>

In the past few years, a craze emerged among numerous tracks to convert their natural dirt surfaces to various synthetic composite surfaces. I believe California tracks were forced to convert by the end of 2007. This costly renovation was undertaken at these tracks primarily to yield two benefits: less injuries/fatalities for horses and jockeys and the ability to race in poor weather conditions. Neither benefit seems to have been fully realized or proven worth the cost of the conversion.

Just recently, an article by the Associated Press discussed details of a preliminary study comparing horse fatalities on natural dirt courses versus synthetic surfaces (read the article here). They found that between June 2007 and early 2008, there was an average of 1.95 deaths per 1,000 starts on synthetic surfaces compared to 1.96 deaths per 1,000 on dirt surfaces. This means there is virtually no improvement in safety. The funny part is how later in the article they spin it “synthetically” to say between June 2007 and last fall, there were only 1.19 deaths per 1000 on synthetic surfaces versus 1.79 on dirt. I have no idea how custom picking a favorable small window is at all statistically relevant. This is particularly the case because the synthetic tracks seems to have composition problems causing safety issues in the cold winter weather.

You don’t need to look far to find other false promises by synthetic surface manufacturers.

Santa Anita seemed to have more cancellations this meet than tracks in the Northeast that have to deal with winter storms. These cancellations probably cost the track millions of dollars.

Woodbine converted to Polytrack back in 2006 and had to renovate the $10 million surface back in May, due to a cold winter that caused the wax to ball up. Unhappy track president David Willmot said then that “we paid for a Cadillac and got a Chevrolet.”

Then, we come to Del Mar. The new surface they implemented there showed the greatest deviation in performance from the dirt track. Based on our figures, the average time for a 6 furlong race at Del Mar went from 1:10.74 to 1:12.85. That is more than 10 lengths of difference, which is utterly absurd. Some major horse owners refused to race their champion horses at Del Mar due to the surface change.

Finally, from a handicapper’s standpoint, this is a nightmare. Your years worth of valuable data collected for an established surface at a track becomes less useful.   Even more crazy is the fact there is no standard for a synthetic surface. You have Cushion, Polytrack, and Tapeta. I’m waiting for a track to start using that cheap fake grass carpet from Costco to replace their turf course. This would be the equivalent of having no standard for the baseball bat a hitter can use in baseball. All past statistics would be completely meaningless.