In last week's Paulick report, Ray Paulick discussed an article out of the San Diego Union-Tribune, that somewhat erroneously reported that synthetic surfaces in California were responsible for an uptick in racetrack horse deaths. The California Horse Racing Board's annual report suggested that the last two years have seen the most horse deaths on California tracks of any two year span in history, but Bill Finley at ESPN argued that this result was due mostly to an increase in deaths on Los Alamitos's all DIRT Quarter Horse track, and that synthetics were in truth responsible for lowering fatalities and improving the health and well-being of California race horses.
So what is the answer? Synthetics have repeatedly come under fire in the years since their installation, both for their inconsistency during inclement weather and for their propensity to contribute to hind end lamenesses in race horses. The debate on synthetics rages from coast to coast, with synthetic proponents like Jerry and Ann Moss nearly refusing to run their horses on anything but California tracks, and synthetic detractors like Jess Jackson refusing to run their horses on anything but dirt. According to an article published at TheHorse.com, figures recently released by Rick Arthur, D.V.M., the equine medical director to the California Horse Racing Board, do seem to argue in favor of the synthetics. TheHorse.com reports that "Arthur's data, separate from the other two reports, shows a decline each year in Thoroughbred deaths since 2005. He also reports figures, based on fatalities per 1,000 starts from 2004 through 2009, which reflect a slower rate of catastrophic injuries to horses racing on synthetic tracks as compared to dirt at Del Mar, Golden Gate Fields, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita. Synthetic surfaces produced a mortality rate of 1.95 per 1,000 (109 out of 56,031 starters) from 2007-09, while the rate over the same tracks when they raced on dirt (2004-06) was 3.09 (181/58,659), according to Arthur. For comparison, the racing fatality rate on turf for the entire period was 2.44 (89/36,486)."
If these numbers are indeed the final figures on the matter, a reduction by more than one fatality per 1000 starts is a significant reduction in deaths. This is the first hard, long-term data that has been calculated since the changeover, and certainly argues for the viability of the surfaces. As to their other problems, such as being very difficult to maintain when the weather turns bad, no definitive answer has yet been found. Proof that the surfaces do in fact lessen the risk of fatality for race horses should however give track owners pause as they determine whether to do away with the surfaces and return to dirt.