Kentucky Derby: Could synthetic turf save horses?

It was like a scene from a movie, but it wasn't the inspirational Seabiscuit story the horse-racing industry has been pining for. Only seconds after the finish of Saturday's Kentucky Derby, while hundreds of thousands of fans were still cheering on winner Big Brown, runner-up Eight Belles crumpled to the ground, felled by two broken front ankles. The three-year-old filly was euthanized on the spot. In the absence of jostling or existing medical problems, Eight Belles's sudden fall has left experts and spectators alike wondering how such a bone-splintering injury could have happened.

"The difficult thing to explain with her is it's so far after the wire, and she was easing down like you'd like to see a horse slow down by that point. I don't have an explanation for it," Dr. Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian, told the Associated Press after the fall.

Between Eight Belles and Barbaro, the beloved Kentucky Derby winner euthanized last year due to complications from an injury sustained during the 2006 Preakness Stakes, two celebrated horses have now suffered fatal injuries on live television in Triple Crown races since 2006. As a result, questions about the sport's current breeding practices, training styles, and racetrack surfaces are bubbling up anew.

American horse races are largely run on dirt tracks—the safety of which is a subject of considerable debate. But a growing number of track owners are switching over to synthetic surfaces such as Polytrack, a blend of silica sand, rubber, and wax that is being used on tracks around the world, ostensibly to cut down on accidents. Kentucky's Turfway Park became the first American track to make the switch, adopting synthetics in September 2005. And the California Horse Racing Board mandated in 2006 that all major tracks in the state change over before 2008.

Critics say the synthetic surface levels the playing field too much, making the sport too predictable. Washington Post horse-racing columnist Andrew Beyer has slammed races held on Polytrack as "boringly homogenized." And some, like Bramlage, have doubts that the forces on a horse's legs would be any different on an artificial surface than on dirt.

"The quality of this year's Derby crop is just a transitory disappointment, but the prep races have undergone what may be a permanent change for the worse. The major reason has been the installation of synthetic surfaces at the sites of significant 3-year-old stakes—Santa Anita, Turfway Park and particularly Keeneland. Almost everyone agrees that synthetic surfaces and dirt are two different games, and that a horse is unlikely to display the same level of ability on both surfaces," Beyer wrote on April 15, just weeks before Eight Belles's fall.

On Tuesday opposing sides of the argument clashed at a small protest outside the offices of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority in Lexington, according to local media reports. PETA representatives slammed the horse racing industry on its safety record, calling for an overall switch to synthetic, among other demands, while an equal number of people came out to counterprotest in support of the horse-racing authorities.

NEWSWEEK's Katie Paul talked about the risks and benefits of synthetic tracks with Jim Pendergest, general manager at Martin Collins Surfaces and Footings, which installs Polytrack in the United States. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How does a synthetic track work differently than a dirt track?
Jim Pendergest: Martin Collins, who is a part owner in our company, was a show-jumping rider at an arena that didn't work very well in bad weather. He invented a wax-coated surface that drains very quickly, and it just happened to turn out to be safer for the horses. Horses just spring off of it. And with the water going through [the vertical drainage system], you never have a muddy track. It also has memory. When a horse's hoof indents a synthetic surface, it springs back to its original form. You can actually see it go right back up, so the next horse that steps in that spot is stepping in only a small indentation. When the horses are galloping on it, it feels like a very firm trampoline. The horses become confident because the footing is more consistent, so they're more sure of where to step. Exercise riders and jockeys also tell you their joints don't ache as much.

How much safer do you think it is for the horses?
We have seen a 50 percent reduction in catastrophic injuries at the racetracks where we have installed Polytrack. They had dirt at Arlington Park the year before it was installed and had 22 catastrophic breakdowns, while last year that number was reduced to 13. At Del Mar there were two catastrophic breakdowns, compared to eight the previous year. At Turfway Park they had 24; then the first year on Polytrack they only had three. The industry-wide number on dirt is 2.03 catastrophic breakdowns per 1,000 starts. On Polytrack that's cut in half, to 1.002, according to the official Equibase numbers.

What about recent studies showing that synthetics actually don't reduce risk?
According to the revised numbers—because there were some errors with the ones presented at the safety summit in March—for all synthetic surfaces there were 1.47 catastrophic injuries per 1,000 starts. For Polytrack it was 1.37 during that six-month time frame. And since they were looking at just a narrow window of time, if you look at the numbers for the entire three to four years since it's been installed, the number is 1.002, which indicates that we're reducing the risk by half. Making a safer track was the specific goal when we brought it to the United States.

There's also a risk in moving a horse between different types of surfaces, right?
No, not really. There are horses that like certain surfaces, so there are going to be horses that don't like synthetic surfaces. There are horses that do better on grass, horses that like dirt, and horses that like synthetic surfaces. Last year both the winner and the runner-up at the Kentucky Derby had their final prep on Polytrack. They actually seem to do well coming off Polytrack and going onto dirt.

There are people who worry that the horses need to be trained or bred differently.
Breeding is debatable, so they're now charting sires for how their offspring do on synthetic surfaces. But we're too early in this to make a complete conclusion about that. Some trainers alter their training methods a little bit; some don't. Horses are able to recover more quickly after using synthetic tracks, so the number of workouts they were able to do went up by 46 percent at [one track]. They're not as sore afterward.

What about how it changes the sport itself, and accusations of too much uniformity in the different tracks?
Even though a lot of materials are the same, not all the surfaces are the same. They have to be adjusted for the climate, with slightly different materials. If you're a bettor and you're trying to bet those, that's something to consider.

What about synthetics changing the emphasis from speed to stamina?
That is a total myth that just won't go away. The times at Keeneland are two seconds faster than what they are on dirt. Four of the five tracks we've put in are equal to or faster than dirt. Everybody expected [to have to go more slowly throughout and do a big push at the end] when we first put the tracks in, so the jockeys started out that way based on what they'd heard about the tracks in the U.K. Gradually, I think everybody has learned that you can treat this like normal track.

Is it foreseeable that the biggest American horse-racing tracks might go entirely synthetic in the future?
Some of the top tracks in the country have already done it. It's not going to happen overnight. People want to watch and see. It's expensive and it's big to convert to something new from what people have been running on for a long time. You're looking at $6 million to $10 million to convert a track, but the maintenance is much cheaper. Churchill Downs owns four racetracks; they converted Arlington Park, and now they want to see what happens there.

Join the Discussion