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Industry Voices: Synthetic Tracks Protect Thoroughbreds

The outcry from many in the industry and the public to conduct a thorough review of the data that correlates catastrophic injuries in horses to racetrack surfaces is warranted and overdue. 

I read a letter this week penned by writer Steven Crist who stated that a call for such review is a “knee-jerk overreaction.” By no means is this outcry an overreaction. Our industry has carefully studied and documented the rate of catastrophic injuries on different racetrack surfaces for over a decade. For those who have paid attention to such data, there is mounting and clear empirical evidence of there being an opportunity to bring about change and better our sport by protecting our equine athletes. 

For respected horse people like Mark Casse, Graham Motion, Michael Dickinson and so many others, this opportunity has been overlooked for years. This is not “knee-jerk,” inasmuch as it represents a call to embrace the crisis currently facing our industry in order to bring about positive change. It is time to ensure that our sport of horse racing, and the livelihoods it represents, sustains itself for generations.

The younger demographic of fan that we need to sustain horse racing will not support a sport that euthanizes competing horses at an alarming rate. The world has changed and we must respect and respond to the social changes that have evolved in society. Moreover, our climate across North America has changed in recent years and racetrack operators are facing unprecedented difficult decisions on how to manage dirt and turf courses under unusual weather conditions. This is also a factor that needs to be considered. 

Our sport and the breed will not change if there becomes a preponderance of turf and synthetic courses at our major racetracks. Over time, if the industry embraces change, our great race horses and breeding horses will also be recognized as those that perform well on turf or synthetic surfaces. That does not make them any less athletic nor will it change the sport for the future. Yes, there have been some great horses that didn’t love the synthetic. There have also been those same great horses that didn’t like the turf either. Did that make them less of a racehorse or stallion or broodmare? It is fair to say that a large percentage of the Thoroughbred breed performs well running on either turf or synthetic. These horses will still be our stars and will produce horses that are our future stars. To suggest that this will somehow cause the “destruction” of horse racing is completely illogical and unfounded. 

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As for the health of our sport as a business, there are statistics which establish that overall wagering handle is superior as a result of horses not being scratched when races are switched from turf courses to a synthetic course. Horses are scratched at an alarming rate at major racetracks when, as a result of inclement weather, the pre-race surface change is from turf to dirt. On the other hand, the scratch rate when a race is moved from turf to synthetic is negligible. Accordingly, with the option of a synthetic surface, there is no hesitation for racetracks to move races off the turf when they become soft as a result of rainfall. It is accepted that soft turf courses are dangerous for horses who are not accustomed to such footing. At Woodbine Racetrack we are heavy users of our excellent turf courses but due to our option of having a synthetic course, we do not hesitate to move to a safer course for our athletes. We have had one catastrophic injury on our turf courses in the past two years. 

There are experts and leaders in this industry who now recognize that we are at a critical stage and I know are ready and willing to bring about change and do what is right for the sport. Sadly, it has taken not less than three major black-eyes on our sport to bring us to this critical point, yet the positive in me says, if that has been the necessary catalyst, then let’s embrace it and seize the opportunity to secure the future of horse racing in North America.

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