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Historically, Thoroughbreds around the world have raced on one of two surfaces—dirt or turf—depending on factors like location, breeding and training. Injuries and fatalities to horses have been an unfortunate but accepted side effect caused by anything from poor training practices, genetic disposition and conformational flaws to external factors like track surfaces. As a result, man eventually stepped in to provide an alternative to the “natural” surfaces on which horses have run for so long.

Incidentally, the first synthetic surface replaced a turf course at Tropical Park in 1966; it wasn’t until over twenty years later in 1988 that a dirt course at Oklahoma City’s Remington Park was replaced by a synthetic surface known as Equitrack. Today, many top venues—from Kentucky’s stately Keeneland to California’s sun-kissed Del Mar—have swapped out dirt for synthetic surfaces.

Horse racing is a fiercely traditional world. Visitors to Arcadia’s Santa Anita Park might think they’ve stepped back in time as they wander the art-deco grounds nestled at the foot of the San Gabriel mountains. On the backside, horses go through a centuries-old rhythm each day as they are prepped for races and kept fit. Horsemen aren’t known for their gimmicks, and so the spread of synthetic surfaces has naturally brought some debate.

Santa Anita installed Cushion Track in 2007 after a California Horse Racing Board mandate that all race tracks replace their dirt courses with synthetic. After maintenance issues, the track was replaced with another brand of synthetic, Pro-Ride. Drainage problems drove the Magna Entertainment Corp.-owned Santa Anita back to a dirt racing surface in 2010 after being granted a waiver of the synthetic requirement.

Since the spread of synthetic courses, the racing world has been divided as to the consequences. Some tracks have seen less fatalities, some have seen more. It seems that the real issue is consistency. The typical Thoroughbred racehorse is just three years old, and most horses are on the track as early as two. Horses are not physically mature until around age four, and thus their developing bones and tendons are even more prone to injuries.

A study performed in conjunction with UC Davis and reported on by TheHorse.com examined bone stress in racehorses running on dirt or synthetic surfaces. The results, as presented at the 2010 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, showed that horses running on dirt had more lesions on the upper humerus, while those that ran on synthetic tracks had lesions on the lower humerus. Statistics like these have only clouded the issue further; both surfaces have resulted in injuries and fatalities, and so horsemen are challenged to produce an environment in which the horse is given the least opportunity to develop injuries.

A more recent study carried out by Dr. Rick M. Arthur for the California Horse Racing Board came to a similar consensus. Data obtained over six years from horses running at California tracks, including Santa Anita, showed that while there were less racing fatalities on synthetic courses versus dirt, training fatalities remained high on both surfaces. Trainers and veterinarians, Dr. Arthur noted in an article published by the American Veterinary Medical Association, were convinced that synthetic tracks cause more long-term injuries.

The problem boils down to consistency in training and racing. Horses thrive on consistency, especially those performing at the peak of their abilities so early in their development. As previously mentioned, few horses run equally as well on turf as they do on dirt, and the same applies to synthetic surfaces. While horses can adapt to different tracks with training and time, they can’t be expected to run on a dirt course like Santa Anita’s current iteration and then ship south for Del Mar’s meet and perform at the same level on synthetic. Furthermore, there are a number of different brands and styles of synthetic materials, a result of the commodification of what is essentially manicured earth. Some horses can and do handle it, but for others, such a change provides the tiny grain of sand that throws the whole machine off balance.

This problem is heightened at facilities with dirt training courses and synthetic main tracks, or vice versa. Again, the horse is accustomed to one type of surface, and then is required to race on another. The mere switch from one track to another is not usually the problem. What are worrisome are minor strains and injuries that may develop in training and then become manifested when the animal must suddenly adapt his running style to a different surface.

Until the racing world pushes back racing ages and gives horses more time to mature, needless injuries and fatalities will occur. Horses are meant to spend their early years romping in pastures, allowing their bodies to develop naturally and become strong enough for the rigors of racing. Sport horses competing at the Olympic level in demanding disciplines like eventing and show jumping do not usually feel the weight of a saddle until age three or four, and aren’t in serious competition until six or seven. Many horses compete into their late teens with few major problems, while most racehorses are retired at four, whether for breeding purposes or due to injury.

The horse racing world, however, has always pushed Thoroughbreds to grow up and perform far too quickly, and there are no signs of change. Horses will continue to suffer career- or life-ending injuries, and many have simply accepted that as part of the sport. Neither surface is evil, nor is either ideal. Thus, it is the responsibility of racetrack management to ensure that track surfaces are consistent and in the best possible condition, something Santa Anita appears to be focusing on with their new dirt surface. Synthetics have had their run, and man is better off honing and maintaining safer dirt surfaces.