Synthetic tracks getting bad rap … again

The headline above a story by a Brent Schrotenboer that ran in the Feb. 24 edition of the San Diego Union-Tribune couldn't have been any more damning toward California's artificial racing surfaces. "Report: synthetic tracks haven't slowed number of horse fatalities," the headline read. There wasn't much gray area here; anyone reading the headline no doubt came away with the conclusion that California's mandated switch to synthetic surface has been an on-going disaster that has led to an increase in fatalities.

The problem is, the report the paper referred to, an annual report issued by the California Horse Racing Board, makes it abundantly clear that the trouble is not with the state's four synthetic surfaces, but with some of its remaining dirt tracks. If anything, the numbers coming out of the CHRB's latest report make a strong case that the dirt surface at Los Alamitos, which is primarily a Quarter-Horse track, is unacceptably dangerous and should be torn out immediately and replaced with a safer, synthetic track.

Whether the fault is with the writer of the story or the headline writer, which, in this case, would not be one and the same, this is a case of sloppy journalism. But that's not necessarily a surprise. Synthetic surfaces have been widely and unfairly maligned in so many places for so long that perception and reality remain far, far apart.

The story notes that there were more horse deaths, 645, over the last two years than during any other two-year period since the CHRB began keeping records on fatalities. That's not wrong. But the story failed to examine what was behind the increase in deaths, and erroneously inferred that the inflated numbers were a result of the switch to synthetic tracks.

To start with, there was only a modest increase in the amount of horse deaths in the two fiscal years running from June 2007 to June 2009. The CHRB annual reports from the two prior fiscal years list 618 deaths at the state's racetracks. What accounted for 27 additional deaths? Los Alamitos.

A staggering 184 horses suffered fatal injuries at Los Alamitos over the two-year period covered in recently released report. In the prior two-year period, 121 horses died at Los Alamitos. The increase in deaths was entirely the result of problems at Los Alamitos, which races over dirt. The synthetic tracks did just fine.

The other culprit was Fairplex, also a dirt surface. Over the last two fiscal years, 31 horses died at Fairplex as compared to 22 during the prior two fiscal years.

(It needs to be noted that not all the deaths recorded by the CHRB occurred during racing or training. For instance, a horse that dies of colic is included in the numbers).

In fact, other studies done by the CHRB have shown that the rate of fatalities at the California tracks have gone down significantly due to the introduction of synthetic tracks. According to Rick Arthur, the CHRB's medical director, California racing was averaging 3.05 deaths per 1,000 starts before synthetic tracks were put in, a number now down to 1.93 deaths per 1,000 starters.

A better story would have been a report that examined the Los Alamitos situation. While 184 horses died over two years at Los Alamitos, no thoroughbred track came close to matching those numbers. Golden Gate Fields had the second most deaths with 104, not at all a surprise since it has more racing dates than any other California thoroughbred track.

I have no idea if Quarter-Horse racing is somehow more dangerous than Thoroughbred racing (though Thoroughbreds also race at Los Alamitos and are dying there as well), but the numbers coming out of Los Alamitos are totally unacceptable. Something is very wrong there and the CHRB should do something about it.

Other unsettling numbers coming out of the CHRB reports show a significant increase in horse deaths across all tracks that began in 2004, before the synthetic tracks were put in. During a period that ran from Nov. 2003 to Nov. 2004, 243 horses died at the California tracks. During the very next fiscal year the number jumped to 320 and has never been below 300 since. I suspect that around that time some new drug cropped up on the backstretches of California's tracks that is still in widespread use today and is contributing to a lot of fatalities. Again, the CHRB ought to try to figure out what happened and fix it.

The CHRB may have a lot to worry about and look at, but synthetic surfaces are not one of its primary problems. At least when it comes to safety, they're getting the job done — no matter what you may have read.

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