Track Tech: At Triple Crown, Dirt Is King But Synthetic May Be Safer

For the week leading up to the Belmont Stakes, WNYC is partnering with the Innovation Trail, WEKU and Louisville Public Media to explore how technology is changing the horse racing industry. This is part three of a four-part series.

The Belmont, like every other stop of the Triple Crown, has a dirt track.

Critics say dirt is more harmful for horses than the new generation of synthetic race tracks. The Jockey Club reports nearly 50 percent fewer horse fatalities on synthetic surfaces than on their dirt counterparts.

Former jockey and trainer Michael Dickinson manufactures Tapeta tracks, which are a hodge-podge of wax, sand, recycled clothes and other materials.

“See how it bounces back -- It’s got life to it,” he said. “But he’s got to have stability from the rear end, so when he pushes it off he doesn’t want to be spinning his wheels.”

But Dickinson said he doesn’t manufacture his product in the U.S. anymore because there’s just no market. Instead, he said his business has expanded to the UK, Australia and the United Arab Emirates. It’s even the surface for the Dubai World Cup.

“The only reason not to put a synthetic in is the cost,” he said, noting they cost about $4 million.

Another reason synthetics haven’t caught on in the U.S. is cultural, according to trainer Larry Murray, whose had horses race in the Preakness.

“It’s different for the horses,” he said. “They have different injuries because of it. And I don’t really think it’s any safer. I think a well maintained dirt track is just as good. But I think that’s the key is a well maintained dirt track.”  

Veterinarian Kathleen Anderson said that on dirt tracks horses typically get more chipped and broken bones, and on synthetics there are harder-to-diagnose hind leg injuries.

Anderson treats horses at the Fair Hill Training Center in northern Maryland, which boasts a dirt track alongside its synthetic. Comparing injuries from the two tracks, Anderson chooses synthetics.

“Just like artificial turf with football players. They probably have more stress related injuries than necessarily concussion related injuries, and it’s similar with horses,” she said.

In the U.S., California took the lead on synthetics; the state’s racing commission mandates them. The results are mixed. Santa Anita Park laid a multi-million dollar synthetic course, but has won permission for a return to dirt.

Mike Willman, who directs publicity at the park, says their synthetic surface proved troublesome.

“It became readily apparent very early on that we had some very serious drainage problems and we had a number of cancelations over a two year period,” Willman said.

The technology is improving rapidly but the skepticism has hardened and extra cash just isn't there.

Graham Motion trained the winner of last year’s Kentucky Derby, Animal Kingdom. He’s a fan of synthetics but says the erratic rollout in California and elsewhere sets the technology back indefinitely.  

“I’m afraid that we might have already missed the boat with the synthetics,” Motion said. “I’m afraid that the way they were introduced to racing in this country, I think, people are so down on them I’m not sure that they’re going to be around very long.”

The original version of this story appeared on the Innovation Trail appeared here.