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 California’s Synthetic Surface Tracks – Jury Still Out 
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Post California’s Synthetic Surface Tracks – Jury Still Out
California’s Synthetic Surface Tracks – Jury Still Out
by: Marla Simpson




In California, the switch to synthetic surfaces for horse racing tracks is complete. The assessment of this change, however, is still underway.

In the words of author and handicapper Andrew Beyer, “Polytrack is different -- profoundly different.” In his October 1, 2006 Washington Post article On New Artificial Surface, the Difference Is Real, Beyer warned: “The people who have championed synthetic racing surfaces should … decide if this bizarre, go-as-slow-as-you-can style of racing is what the sport really needs.”

The California Horse Racing Board Requires California Tracks To Install Engineered Surfaces

Those championing the use of engineered surfaces found a powerful ally in the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB). In May of 2006, the CHRB announced its mandate. In a press release, the board declared that by January 1 2008, “No racing association that operates four weeks of continuous Thoroughbred racing in a calendar year shall be licensed to conduct a horse racing meeting at a facility that has not installed a polymer synthetic type racing surface.”

The purpose of this decree, which would require all of California’s major tracks to switch from dirt to engineered surfaces, was to reduce injuries.

Engineered racing surfaces typically include several layers – a drainage system, then sometimes another layer of sand, and a mixture of fibers, sand, and wax on top. The top layer can include a variety of ingredients designed to absorb shock and to withstand the weather. The specifics of each mixture are carefully guarded secrets held by each racing surface manufacturer.

Faced with the threat of losing their licenses if they did not comply, the tracks made the transition.

Hollywood Park Selects Cushion Track

In June 2006, Hollywood Park selected Cushion Track, produced by Equestrian Surfaces International Limited, to replace its existing track. The company’s Web site describes Cushion Track as “a combination of chopped Polypropylene fibers, elastic fibers, felt, rubber and selected fine high grade multi washed industrial sand, which is carefully weighed and blended with the addition of a wax coating.” To complete the installation, sixteen thousand tons of Cushion Track were manufactured in the United Kingdom and shipped on a chartered vessel to Long Beach, California.

Like other synthetic surface projects, the installation included a drainage system covered with additional layers of barriers, followed by the final layer of a blend of ingredients – the Cushion Track itself.

Del Mar Picks Polytrack

Del Mar was the next track to fall in line with the selection and installation of a new Polytrack racing surface. A relative old-timer in the engineered racetrack industry, Polytrack had been around since 1987 when the first Polytrack surface appeared in Wiltshire, England.

In July of 2007, some handicappers jumped in, some waited it out and some took a cautious approach. But regardless of its effect on handicappers, the new Del Mar installation was complete.

Golden Gate Fields Choses Tapeta Footings

Magna Entertainment Corp., the owner of Golden Gate Fields, elected to entrust Tapeta Footings with the installation of its new track.

In discussing the various synthetic surface options, Golden Gate Fields General Manager Robert Hartman cited adaptability to climate as a consideration. According to a San Francisco Chronicle article, he reportedly said, "There are a lot of similarities in these products, but for this climate, Tapeta was thought to suit us best."

Where climate is concerned, Tapeta Footings claims to have a history of providing excellent footing through almost every kind of weather -- drought, hurricane, flooding, snow and temperatures ranging from 110 to minus 17 degrees.

The season opened on the new surface in November 2007.

Santa Anita Searches for a Solution

Relative to other California tracks, the transition to synthetic surfaces has been the most problematic for Santa Anita. Initially, Santa Anita selected and installed a Cushion Track surface in 2007. However, the Cushion Track system proved to be less than ideal. In 2008, makers of Pro-Ride first renovated then replaced the Cushion Track surface. According to a September 2008 article from the Daily Racing Form, the renovation project involved mixing more than 14,500 tons of sand with Pro-Ride polymer and fiber, then laying it onto the racetrack.

Handicappers Voice Their Opinions on the New Tracks

Not all handicappers share the cynical outlook expressed in Beyer’s initial reaction to synthetic surfaces. In a recent interview with Case the Race, professional handicapper Boomer Wry explained, “First of all, synthetic surfaces have been successful. I’m a critic of synthetic surfaces that aren’t installed properly, but when they are installed properly they have proven successful... They had to do something to make the tracks safer.”

For horse racing handicappers, the most important questions may not circle around whether engineered surfaces are good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, but how to react to them. When asked about the differences evident on synthetic surfaces, Mike Ramelot, Vice President of Marketing for Case the Race and longtime horse racing aficionado, explained, “In general, synthetic surfaces play more to a stalker or closers’ style -- unlike dirt where I would tend to favor early speed. So when I’m looking at CASE variables ( biomechanical data provided by Case the Race), I prefer a horse with strong endurance ratings. Along with the highest endurance ratings, I look for consistency with the other indexes.”

California Horse Racing Board to Study Impact on Equine Safety

Recently, in January of 2009, the California Horse Racing Board announced that it will be coordinating a range of studies to determine the relationships between track surfaces and equine injuries. If funding for the project is approved, it will involve inspections of all tracks to see if there is a correlation with injuries. Additionally, it will involve use of The Jockey Club’s Incompass system, reporting from private veterinarians, and biomechanical testing.

When asked about injuries on synthetic surfaces, Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB equine medical director, reportedly noted that so far, the data has been most reliable for determining racing fatalities. His most recent analysis showed a decrease in racing fatalities on synthetic surfaces compared with the dirt surfaces they replaced.


About The Author
The author is part of a team that produces data and articles for a horse racing website, Case the Race. This article is reprinted in a modified version from http://www.casetherace.com/articles/91.html.





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Sun Feb 27, 2011 12:22 pm
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