California Thoroughbred summit centers on track surface's impact


Are synthetic surfaces leading to a decline in fatal injuries in races?

ARCADIA, CALIF. — Since installation of synthetic surface racetracks in California, some statistics have pointed to a decline in fatal injuries in races. The question is whether the reduction in injuries is due to track surface or the result of better care and management by race-day veterinarians.

That question was the focal point of a reportedly divisive panel discussion of racetrack surfaces, as approximately 150 owners, trainers, veterinarians and others gathered to address the finer points at the Thoroughbred Owners of California first-ever summit meeting, Feb. 13 in Santa Anita, Calif.

The panel was comprised of Rick Arthur, DVM, equine medical director of California Horse Racing Board; Francisco Uzal, DVM, PhD, professor of clinical diagnostic pathology, California Animal Health & Food Safety Lab of University of California-Davis; Lucy Anthenill, DVM, also of University of California-Davis; as well as trainers and a handicapper.

Synthetics show a reduced fatality rate when compared to the same racing surfaces when they were dirt (an average of 37 percent at the four tracks converting to synthetics), Arthur says. The synthetic rates of fatality are lower than turf, and there does not seem to be an impact on training fatality rates, he notes. Synthetics also are difficult to maintain and wear out much more quickly than expected.

"Synthetics are promising, but the learning curve for track superintendents has been steep," Arthur says. "There is also considerable indication that the types of injuries have changed."

Additionally, Anthenill and Uzal shared statistics on findings from a necropsy program on racehorse fatalities from 2005 through 2009 on dirt, synthetic and turf tracks. Further data on catastrophic injuries in racing and in training were presented by Arthur.

Dirt surface fatality rates at four prominent California tracks (Del Mar, Golden Gate Fields, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita) were 3.05 per 1,000 starts, Arthur adds. Upon switching to synthetic surfaces four years ago, the number dropped to 1.93 per 1,000 starts. The number, Arthur adds, represents 60 to 70 less racing fatalities overall.

The panelist veterinarians noted the statistic that 90 percent to 95 percent of fatalities had pre-existing stress fractures. According to Uzal, a major reason for fractures may be pre-existing conditions that are not detected.

"Are we missing these pre-existing conditions or ignoring them?" Arthur asks.

"We are convinced that a great majority of fatal breakdowns have pre-existing causes, which means they can be avoided," says Uzal, who processes state-mandated post-mortems of horses that die at state-regulated sites.

The discussion highlighted various injuries that are present on synthetic tracks. Some trainers on the panel were opposed to the use of synthetic tracks, arguing the horses have to respond by altering their stride length. Trainers also noted how injuries are more common in younger horses. Trainers at the panel discussion provided detailed accounts of their experiences on synthetic surfaces, expounding on the reasons they are seeking a return to traditional dirt tracks.

John Sadler, a trainer on the panel and the current president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers Association, said in a statement that although synthetic surfaces have seen a reduction in fractures, other injuries were becoming more common.

"We have as many injuries," he says, citing "high suspensories, tibias, hind cannon bones and pelvises."

The panel discussion is just a reminder that more studies on racetrack surfaces and injury relationships need to be conducted, Sadler adds. In fact, he referenced a study, led by Jacob J. Setterbo of University of California-Davis, published in the October 2009 issue of the American Journal of Veterinary Research. The study found that somewhat low hoof accelerations, vibrations and peak ground reaction forces combined with a synthetic track surface may lead to injury reduction in Thoroughbred racehorses.

The horse racing industry needs to maintain "open discussion" on track surfaces and the impact on horses, he adds.

"Many horsemen are just too frustrated with synthetics to see straight, you might as well be talking abortion or gun control," Arthur says.

The panel was moderated by Madeline Auerbach, vice chair of the Thoroughbred Owners of California.

Ms. Skernivitz is a freelance journalist in Cleveland, Ohio.

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