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So It’ll Be Fine Then, Right?

Word is in that Santa Anita will be entirely replacing its ill-fated Cushion Track surface after they squeak by to the end of this season:

“No one is aware more than I am that we will have the Breeders’ Cup here two years in a row,” said [Santa Anita president Ron] Charles. We have got to get it right. This surface that’s out there right now will only last us through the end of this meet.”

How did we get here? Let’s rewind to last year, via the DRF:

Charles said there are concerns about how synthetic surfaces will handle Santa Anita’s warm summer weather. He said consultants for Magna Entertainment have inspected synthetic surfaces in Australia and Dubai.

Earlier this year, he said four types of synthetic surfaces were being considered – Cushion Track, Polytrack, Pro-Ride, and Tapeta.

“I’m not sure anyone can do enough due diligence as to what surface is best for Santa Anita,” he said.

I guess those Magna consultants did a bang-up job! Personally, if I had an expense account to wander around Australia and Dubai with, I might feel compelled to collect something in the way of real data, not just sales brochures. Some trainers, notably Bob Baffert, are annoyed at the state of synthetic surfaces overall:

“I think we’re in a crisis right now,” said Baffert, who said he initially supported the synthetic surfaces. “I think these vendors who put these tracks in sold us a bill of goods that didn’t do what they’re supposed to. I think these surfaces disrespect the ability of a horse and they disrespect the contest of horse racing, where the best horse is supposed to win.”

I’ll have to go on record as agreeing with Baffert — fewer injuries is the goal, but there is very little in the way of actual evidence that any particular formulation will work well for a given track and hardly more about a reduction in injuries. Anecdotal evidence simply isn’t good enough, yet that’s all that seems to be given out. Figures about ‘reductions’ in injuries are often bandied about when the synthetics issue comes up (and injuries on the synthetic tracks are ‘freak accidents‘), but no real sources are given, nor are the conditions or type of synthetic surface cited. The conventional wisdom that synthetic surfaces should lead to an emphasis on breeding for stamina seems rather empty in light of how lightning-fast some of them seem to be, so even that potential upside seems to be unsupported by the evidence.

If synthetic surfaces actually reduced injuries (as opposed to simply being rumored to do so), I would be happy for every track in the country to install them (presuming they were able to select one that was appropriately tailored for their climate) — but as with so many things, in the absence of hard data (which, really should be very easy to collect), I’m not a believer. Frankly, I’d prefer to see more turf racing rather than a spate of cancellations interspersed with new records set every time the track is actually safe to use. Good luck with the next two Breeders’ Cups!

Edit: For a great summary and links to the reports given, head over to HoofBlog. It’s good stuff.

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