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Synthetic a bad idea now? Not so fast

The Santa Anita racing surface is a mess, so these synthetic surfaces must be the worst idea since New Coke? Not so fast. One setback, albeit a major one, hasn't changed my mind about synthetic surfaces. When it's all said and done, they will still turn out to be one of the best things that have ever happened to racing.

Right now, that might be a hard argument to sell. Santa Anita had to cancel three days of racing recently when the Cushion Track surface didn't drain properly after the area got hit by several inches of rain. The irony is that synthetic surfaces are supposed be impervious to water and never get wet. Getting things right again at Santa Anita is going to take drastic measures, maybe even putting down an entirely new racing surface.

But synthetic surface bashers, and there are many right now, are missing an essential point: these tracks are in fact much safer than conventional dirt surfaces.

Synthetic tracks may not be the cure-all many people had hoped for, and a lot of horses are still breaking down over Cushion Track, Polytrack and Tapeta. But enough races have been run over synthetic surfaces now that there is sufficient amount of data out there to come to some solid conclusions. So far, as a whole, synthetic tracks are producing about 33 percent fewer fatalities than conventional dirt tracks. Those numbers come from a study being conducted by Florida-based veterinarian Dr. Mary Scollay, whose efforts grew out of the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit held in October 2006.

That means that hundreds of horses have been saved by the advent of synthetic tracks. Hundreds and hundreds more will be saved in the years to come. This sport has to stop killing so many of these animals, and synthetic surfaces are producing meaningful results toward that end. That's issue No. 1 when it comes to synthetic tracks and issue No. 2 doesn't come close.

Those are just the stats on fatalities. How many fewer horses have suffered career-ending injuries or even injuries that put them on the shelf for several months? Those numbers aren't available yet, but there's no doubt that they are significant.

What's happened at Santa Anita is a case of people moving too soon, and too fast. The California Horse Racing Board, though well-intentioned because it was putting the safety of the animal first, rushed to judgment and it had no business telling private racetrack companies that they had to spend some $10 million to put in these new and, somewhat, unproven surfaces. Look at what Keeneland did with Polytrack. There, a synthetic surface was first put down on the training track and was road-tested for a good year before the move was made to install it on the main track.

California Horse Racing Board Chairman Richard Shapiro has taken his lumps for his decision to order synthetic surfaces in his state, and some of them are deserved. But Shapiro was trying to do the right thing and cut down on the unacceptable amount of horse deaths that had been occurring at California racetracks. Most of the blame should go to the people at Cushion Track. They were paid a lot of money to put in a new track and they didn't do their job. I can't imagine any tracks in the future choosing them over their competitors when looking to go synthetic.

So the Cushion Track at Santa Anita is a lemon. But that's one track among many. The Polytrack surfaces at Keeneland, Turfway and Arlington have performed well. There have been some problems with the Polytrack surface at Woodbine, but they seemed to have worked out the bugs. No one has heard any complaints about the Tapeta tracks at Presque Isle Downs and Golden Gate Fields and even the beleaguered Cushion Track company seems to have gotten it right at Hollywood Park.

Overseas, synthetic surfaces have been in place for years and no one hears one bad word about them. They've been racing over Polytrack in England since 2001 without any problems.

It will take time to work the kinks out, but the kinks will be worked out. There will come a time when these surfaces are problem-free and are still producing the desired results: safer racing, bigger fields, and fewer cancellations. What's happening at Santa Anita is unfortunate, but this one problem seems minor when compared to the overall benefits of synthetic surfaces.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.