STATISTICS CAN BE SYNTHETIC TOO - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report


By Ray Paulick

Whether he knew it or not, researcher Tim Parkin threw a juicy piece of red meat to the vocal anti-synthetic track crowd on Monday during the opening session of the third Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit at Keeneland when he said there was no “statistically relevant difference” in the percentage of racing fatalities on dirt vs. turf or all-weather/synthetic tracks.

The statistics from the Equine Injury Database, launched in July 2008, showed an average fatality rate of 2.04 runners per thousand blended over all surfaces. Dirt tracks came in highest, at 2.14 deaths per thousand, with turf and synthetic slightly lower at 1.78 per thousand, but the sample size, particularly for turf and synthetic runners, was not sufficient for Parkin to draw any firm conclusions at this time. “Areas where there are no significant differences could develop significant differences with more study,” Parkin said.

That was game, set and match for the horsemen, horseplayers and fans who have grown to despise synthetic tracks for various reasons. Many trainers are convinced the surfaces have led to an increase in soft tissue injuries and have turned good horses into mediocre ones and mediocre ones into good ones. Horseplayers are often confounded by the results on synthetic (and as someone who has virtually given up playing Keeneland's Polytrack surface, I can attest to that). Some think it's just plain silly to race on anything but natural dirt or grass. As trainer Nick Zito once said, “I don't want to run on anything made from my attic. God made dirt, and God made grass.”

That begs the question: Did God make furosemide, clenbuterol, phenylbutazone, or steroids?

What's gotten lost here in all the hysteria over synthetic tracks is that some very well-intentioned people have gone to a great deal of effort to make racing safer for horses. Let's not disparage them for that.

Was there a rush to install synthetic surfaces at some tracks? Yes, but let's also not forget the circumstances.

Turfway Park was the first U.S. track to conduct racing over a synthetic surface, Polytrack, originally developed in England. It is no coincidence that Turfway and Polytrack are both co-owned by Keeneland. The old Turfway Park was a mess in winter and spring due to fluctuating conditions of freezing and thawing. Trainer Ken McPeek, speaking during an afternoon panel at the Safety Summit, called Turfway's old dirt track “brutal.”  Keeneland, which McPeek described as having an “awful” dirt surface, also switched to Polytrack after endless complaints from trainers.

Del Mar in Southern California had an ongoing public relations nightmare with its dirt track producing an extremely high number of fatalities in consecutive years.  (I'll never forget the front-page headline in the San Diego Union-Tribune that said: NO HORSES DIE AT DEL MAR after a rare, incident free card.) Buoyed by favorable early impressions of synthetic tracks, the California Horse Racing Board mandated that all major racetracks in the state install a synthetic main track to replace dirt.

Did the CHRB jump the gun? Absolutely. But let's not forget how many complaints there were about the dirt surfaces before the mandate was made.

So the decisions to reform got ahead of the science. And now the science is catching up. A non-scientific statistical survey by Equibase, conducted for the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, shows a measurable difference between dirt and all-weather/synthetic in the percentage of horses that did not finish a race and never competed or worked out again. That statistical study was reported in the Paulick Report yesterday morning (click here to read the article and here for the statistics).

The Equine Injury Database, using a much smaller sample group, showed no statistically relevant difference.

Let's allow the science and statistical studies to continue before we make any further decisions to eliminate or install more all-weather/synthetic tracks. The most important factor in all this, and the reason the solutions-oriented individuals who have championed synthetic tracks have put their reputations on the line, is quite simple: the safety of the racehorses is paramount.


Lost in the glaring spotlight of the track surface debate was the resounding endorsement in both the Equibase/TOBA statistics and the Equine Injury Database study involving 2-year-old racing.

Parkin said 2-year-olds on average were 35% less likely to suffer a racing fatality as horses aged 3 and up. Similarly, the Equibase/TOBA statistics showed a significantly reduced percentage of “career-ending did not finish” racing performances for 2-year-olds compared with older horses. It also showed that horses that began their careers racing at 2 were less likely to have a “career-ending did not finish” performance in subsequent years. In other words: racing a horse at age 2 is, on average, a net positive for the horse's future soundness.

So can we now stop the irrational wailing over the racing of 2-year-olds? We need to save our vocal cords for the synthetic vs. dirt or Zenyatta vs. Rachel Alexandra debate.


Copyright © 2010, Blenheim Publishing , LLC


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