The Great Debate
In the wake of the highly publicised, tragic deaths of Eight Belles and Barbaro, the racing world is in an uproar over track safety. Though training practices, injury management, and weather conditions also influence a horse's performance and contribute to circumstances that could cause a fatal accident, the focus has fallen on track material this time. There is general disagreement from all sides of the debate, as many people prefer a dirt track and others are demanding that synthetic tracks be installed for the safety of the equine athletes.
Tradition vs. Safety
Historically, equine racetracks are one of three types; dirt, turf, or synthetic. Dirt tracks are the most popular for spectators wagering on a race, as conditions are easiest to gauge to choose a winner. Turf (grass) is kinder on a horse's legs, as there is much more shock absorption. Synthetic tracks have been installed for years, but have come to the United States fairly recently.
Dirt tracks are easy to maintain, and are the more economical option for any track. They can be softened up with the use of ground pine or other mulches, and give the horses a good, clean running surface. While horses tend to slide a little more on dirt, it is heavily preferred over turf because horses can maintain an increased speed that it not hindered by the softer landing grass gives.
The downside to dirt lies in it's inability to give. Dirt is very hard on a horse's legs because there is little to no shock absorption at all. It can be compared to a human trying to run down the road on their hands at 40 MPH. Horses have thin legs holding up a thousand pound body, and are very fine boned from the forearm down to the hoof. Fractures can occur easily even on softer ground, and if a horse is pushed too hard, you've got another Barbaro on your hands. However, the racing industry has conducted research on different track surfaces and the fatalities associated with each. They found that there was very little difference in the number of fatalities on dirt vs. synthetic track.
Synthetic: Not A Quick Fix
In 2008, race tracks in the state of California and many in other states changed their dirt tracks to synthetic tracks. These tracks are made of a rubber type substance, mixed with sand and various waxes to hold it all together. They absorb shock, and have a lot more "give" to them than traditional dirt surfaces. However, while this type of surface is undoubtedly kinder on the legs, if not maintained properly and consistently, it can be just as bad, or worse, than a dirt track. Trainers at Saratoga New York's Thoroughbred track found that in the morning, their track was so hard that the horses were coming in sore, shedding pieces of their frogs (the triangular cushion on the underside of the hoof that absorbs landing shock), and that there were more injuries and even fatalities. One trainer was quoted as saying "Something has to happen. Lots of us are scared to death to breeze a horse before the [8:15 a.m. renovation] break."
Another common complaint about this type of running surface relates to how the horse handles things. A happy, content horse runs faster and with less stress than an unhappy horse. Many young horses do not like the feeling of running on a synthetic track. The "give" when a hoof pushes down can make these horses nervous, and if the track is wet, can slow them down even further. Synthetic track also requires more maintenance, and is quite costly to install.
It's not all bad, however. A properly maintained synthetic track drains water better, thus preventing muddy track conditions that cannot be avoided with a dirt track. There is some evidence at certain tracks that the synthetic surfaces have decreased racehorse fatalities by a good margin. However, a large portion of the racing community, namely the spectators, trainers, and race officials disagree on whether that margin is enough to be worth the loss of profit they've seen due to installation costs, horse injuries, and horses being scratched from races due to the track being too hard.
Time Will Tell
In the end, only time will tell whether synthetic track has it's place in the horse racing world, but for now most of the industry agrees: Dirt is traditionally the best and makes for faster races, happier spectators, and more money spent on wagers. This industry is one that is hard put to change, and any change will take place slowly and only after much argument.