Synthetic tracks not perfect,
but they’re here to stay

Mar 6, 2007 1:47 AM

I once heard a guy scream for a horse in the lead to break a leg so the horse he bet on could win.

This is how demented gamblers can become over cashing a bet. Come on, death. Life be damned.

That was an isolated and extreme case, of course. In large part, the health and safety of the animal is paramount in racing. That’s why, responding to an overwhelming outcry from horsemen bemoaning pitfalls of dirt surfaces, the California Horse Racing Board mandated that each track racing at least four weeks annually, install a synthetic surface by the end of 2007.

Hollywood Park and Del Mar have already complied. Hollywood has a Cushion Track; Del Mar went Polytrack. Santa Anita will install an as yet unannounced synthetic surface at the conclusion of the current meet that ends April 22.

For Bob Baffert, it can’t come soon enough.

"I’ll be happy to see it, if they put in a good one," said the three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, who has more good horses than Michael Jackson has lawsuits. "The only way horsemen from other parts of the country will ship to Southern California with a string of horses is when all our major tracks have synthetic surfaces. But now, horsemen from out of state can’t bitch about that (track surfaces). They might find something else to bitch about, but the main reason for their complaints will be eliminated."

A precedent was set when the Eclipse Award winning trainer of 2006, Todd Pletcher, sent horses to Hollywood from his East Coast headquarters late last year.

"Pletcher coming was very important," Baffert allowed, but with a personal caveat. "In a way it’s good, in a way it’s bad. It’s good that he’s here, but it’s bad that he brought all those good horses that I have to try and beat. I don’t like that (laughing)."

Still, synthetic surfaces are no panacea. Their Achilles heel could be cold weather.

"They had trouble in Canada (at Woodbine) and at Turfway (in Kentucky)," Baffert pointed out. "No surface will be good in freezing temperatures unless it has dry sand or cuppy sand. When there are big mounds of snow on the ground, I can’t believe they even run horses in those weather conditions."

Baffert, an eight-time Santa Anita training champion who is enjoying another outstanding meet, rarely sends out a runner without a bullet workout. Yet he does not profess to be a proponent of speed. Consistency is everything.

"When you see a horse run in :21 flat for a quarter mile and :43 for the half, it cannot be healthy," the 54-year-old Baffert said. "Dirt tracks can be manipulated by a variety of methods, with water or by digging them up (with harrows). It can change from race to race, and be made fast, slow or medium. Synthetic surfaces can be tweaked a little, but not as much as dirt, so it’s not as bad."

Dr. Rick Arthur has experienced racing injuries and dirt surfaces first-hand for years, as a horseman and as an accomplished veterinarian. He currently serves as director of equine medicine for the CHRB, and is a champion of synthetic tracks.

"It’s a lot kinder surface because it has a bit more bounce to it," he said. "Bounce is not a scientific term, but it distributes energy more safely; and the track absorbs much of the energy from the horse’s foot when it strikes the ground.

"Results at Hollywood Park have been very impressive. We lost no horses at the fall meet on the Cushion Track during racing. From my observation and from my memory, that’s a first. Furthermore, even though the Hollywood barn area is full to the rafters, there have been no fatalities (from leg injuries due to training) through 60 days of training, which is phenomenal . . . Two horses had heart attacks, but you can’t blame that on the track.

"The other thing that’s promising is that ideally, a synthetic track should be more consistent under various weather conditions. If that will be the case or not, I don’t know, and whether the maintenance issues we have so frequently with dirt tracks will continue with synthetic tracks, time will tell.

"There were maintenance issues at Hollywood, but they were resolved quickly. There will be a learning curve on how these tracks will be maintained, but there appears to be latitude. In other words, on synthetic surfaces, little mistakes don’t cause big problems, whereas on dirt tracks, little mistakes do cause big problems."

The homestretch

”¡ I wrote weeks ago that at 30-1, Great Hunter offered the best Kentucky Derby Future Book value. However, after winning the Robert B. Lewis Stakes impressively in his 3-year-old debut, you won’t get anywhere near that price in the next round.

”¡ I didn’t like Derby favorite Nobiz Like Showbiz before he was beaten at 3/5 in the Fountain of Youth and I like him even less now.

”¡ Toughest beat Saturday was Stormello’s nose loss to Scat Daddy in the Fountain of Youth. The California-based colt did everything but win, losing in the last jump. For jockey Kent Desormeaux, that might stick in his craw almost as much as Real Quiet’s nose defeat by Victory Gallop in the 1998 Belmont. That loss cost Real Quiet the Triple Crown.