As the Kentucky Derby approaches on May 4th, the most talked about issue in horse racing is not who will win the prestigious race. Rather, it’s what’s been happening at Santa Anita. Twenty-three race horses have died at the Santa Anita racetrack since the end of December 2018, mostly due to injuries from racing or training. The track closed for most of March while a task force looked into the issue, but with no definitive answer, the resulting discussions have brought into public discussion a full host of the issues that plague horse racing in the US. The problems outlined range from the track surface, to the drugs used by trainers, to over training. The overall picture is not a pretty one for the future of racing.
Today, let’s look at what for me, is the most immediately obvious problem: the track surface. Since these breakdowns have been happening at Santa Anita, and not across the country, it makes sense to me that there’s something wrong with the track itself.
The controversy over track surfaces has spanned decades. Dirt tracks are consistent, but hard. The Equine Injury Database shows that over the last decade, their catastrophic injury rate has averaged 64% greater than that of synthetic tracks.
During the 2006-07 Santa Anita meeting, the last dirt surface before Santa Anita converted to a synthetic surface, there were 12 racing and 10 training fatalities on the main track.
So, in 2006, the California Racing Board spearheaded a movement to rip up traditional dirt tracks and replace them with synthetic compounds, which, in theory had more cushioning. When a horse’s foot hits the ground, it needs to slide forward a little to help dissipate the force of impact. The caveat is, too much cushioning or slide can result in soft-tissue injuries such as tendon and ligament damage.
Polytrack surfaces sounded good in principal, but in practice, they worked better at tracks where the weather was consistently cool, such as Golden Gate Fields. At Santa Anita, where surface temperatures rose above 100 degrees on hot days, there were drainage problems and clouds of particulates were stirred up. Whether it was the polytrack or the drainage that caused the problems is up for debate, but Santa Anita decided to change back to dirt in 2011.
In March 2011, seven horses died on the Santa Anita track. The track had recently been upgraded to a surface which initially consisted of 86% sand, 8% clay, and 6% silt. Ultimately, it was deemed difficult to work with because it was “inconsistent”.
In 2014, the surface of the Santa Anita track was redone with “El Segundo” sand, which is coveted for its uniformity . . . but which is also considered to be a good “drought resistant” surface. That’s fine until California had one of the wettest winters in memory. Sealing the track repeatedly may help when it’s wet, but once the rain is over, the track can be left too hard, so that even after the track is harrowed, the footing still clumps. Some people also belive that the top layer of sand has filtered down further and when the track is harrowed, it doesn’t touch the harder, thicker base at the bottom. The result? The surface is may not be giving enough for thoroughbreds’ legs.
Some people don’t believe it’s the surface at all, but blame the breakdowns on trainers’ overreliance on drugs. More on that tomorrow.