Synthetic tracks are believed to be a safer racing surface when contrasted with a traditional dirt track surface. Synthetic surfaces also handle wet weather better than dirt, which gets hard. It is believed that a move away from dirt racing to a synthetic surface racing will prove beneficial for the soundness of the horse. California is the first state to mandate that all its dirt tracks be replaced with a synthetic surface by the end of 2007. Breeders' Cup is returning to California in 2008 which will mark the first running of the Breeders' Cup races on a synthetic surface.
Synthetic tracks have proven popular among horsemen. Keeneland has become a popular place to train horses, even those preparing for the 2006 Breeders' Cup and the 2007 Kentucky Derby. Hollywood Park is busier now in the morning than it has ever been. There are also indications that trainers are more willing to run in the afternoon on the surface, and even as a race comes off the turf, many of the turf runners remain in the race when it is switched to the synthetic surface. Because there is much less 'kick back' from a horse's stride, the need for early speed and position (traditional for dirt racing) is not so critical. The recent Derby prep at Keeneland (Toyota Bluegrass) was a great example of what a horse race could be, slow start, five - six horses in with a chance turning for home running much faster at the end than at the beginning.
The surface seems to have more concussion for a horse when it lands on the surface, yet it also provides much firmer support when then horse is striding away. It does not break away, hence very little kick back. It is very consistent and requires less maintenance. Hollywood Park does not have a scheduled renovation break in the morning, nor does Fair Hill. These are necessary for dirt tracks.
Why are synthetic surfaces not yet fully adopted?
The factors weighing against making the switch at this point seem fourfold:
1. Lack of scientific evidence that synthetic surfaces will reduce the incidences of breakdowns (it just takes time to build the data)
2. The cost of installation is a significant investment (millions of dollars)
3. Traditionalists fear what they cannot anticipate and there is a long tradition of dirt racing. Many billions of dollars are also invested in dirt pedigrees (turf runners appear equally adept at handling a synthetic surface as do dirt runners).
4. Lack of understanding of the consequence of inhaling the track surface (note, the kick-back is much less than a dirt track where inhaling dirt is all too common).
What are the brands?
There are four synthetic track surfaces available in North America are:
Polytrack, installed at Arlington Park, Keeneland, Woodbine,Turfway Park and Del Mar.
Cushion track, installed at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita.
Pro-Ride from Australia and now adopted at Santa Anita.
Pro-Ride at Santa Anita Gets Thumbs Up September 29, 2008
Heat may be affecting Pro-Ride September 26, 2008
Stevens endorses overhauled Santa Anita surface August 30, 2008
Santa Anita surface ready to go August 28, 2008
Synthetic Surfaces Discussed in New York July 29, 2008
Zito, Frankel leery of a synthetic Cup July 28, 2008
Cushion Track to get overhaul July 8, 2008
Synthetic Surfaces on Agenda in New York July 7, 2008
Santa Anita to Install Pro-Ride Surface June 23, 2008
Base of SA Surface Could Be Replaced Bloodhorse, May 29, 2008
Is a Synthetic Track Safer? The Rail (NY Times) by Bob Goetz
Changes will start with tracks DRF 5/7/08
Eight Belles' death may be wakeup call The San Diego Union-Tribune 5/6/08
Synthetic Surfaces: Special Report Bloodhorse 12/13/07
Overview of Proposals for Track Surface Studies Dr. Mick Peterson and Dr. Wayne McIlwraith have developed a research proposal for uniform testing of all racing surfaces.