It was touted as the gold standard. It would stand up to a deluge of rain and all sorts of harsh weather. It would take away track bias and require minimal maintenance. By early 2008 synthetic surfaces for every day racing had been installed at nine tracks across North America.
They were represented by names like Polyturf, Cushion Track, Pro-Ride and Tapeta. Safety-wise the racing surfaces have lived up to their billing. In the latest study released in early April by the Equine Injury Database of The Jockey Club it showed that synthetic surfaces were far safer than dirt or turf, producing proportionally much fewer fatal breakdown.
It was the high-profile, catastrophic breakdowns of Barbaro in the 2008 Preakness and Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby spurred the rapid transition to synthetics. The rush to judgment was especially swift in California. In 2006 the California Horse Racing Board mandated its four venues install the new all-weather racetracks.
But not long after being installed the artificial surfaces pivoted from a source of intrigue to a litany of complaints. It was too slow. It favored stretch runners. It left gamblers bewildered which led to a sharp decrease in betting handles. The surfaces lessened the concussion factor when compared to running on conventional dirt, but some horsemen said it sometimes caused hind-end, soft tissue and muscle injuries.
The movement stalled in California. Three years after Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface was installed, it was under siege by its colony of trainers who cited a string of maddening maintenance problems. Radical temperature changes between morning and afternoon racing causing the surface to rapidly deteriorate. The new surfaces also short-circuited the calling card of most California dirt tracks--- speed, speed and more speed. Owners and trainers grumbled for generations American horses had been bred to excel on dirt and by switching the tracks to synthetics those vaunted bloodlines were turned upside down.
Today, the synthetic surface project for racing purposes in the U. S. appears to be over. No new synthetic surfaces have been installed in North America in seven years.
In mid-February Del Mar Racetrack confirmed it will scrap its Polytrack once the 2014 meet is over, joining Santa Anita that had already abandoned its all-weather surface. The on April 2 came the blockbuster announcement that Keeneland Race Course is converting its main race track from the Polytrack material to a state-of-the-art dirt surface. The April Jockey Club report showed that Keeneland was one of the safest in the nation, with a fatality rate last year of 0.33 per 1,000 starts.
There are just five synthetic surfaces left: Arlington Park, Golden Gate Fields, Presque Isle Downs, Woodbine, and Turfway Park.
“This is not a decision that we have undertaken lightly,” said Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason said. “From the outset of the synthetic surface installation in 2006, we have always said that this is a journey and not a destination. The racing landscape has changed, and for that reason we have an obligation to our horsemen and to our fans to evaluate where the industry is going.”
The iconic Keeneland Racecourse had been a pioneer and vocal advocate of these surfaces. It was so bullish Keeneland partnered with British designer and manufacturer Martin Collins with an idea of rolling out more and more synthetic tracks. That partnership was severed in 2012.
Which brings us to another Brit, Michael Dickinson. A tall and lanky former steeplechase jockey, and top-flight trainer in both England and America, Dickinson concocted the Tapeta all-weather surface at his northern Maryland farm. It is a precise mix of sand, rubber and fiber layered four to seven inches deep over a two-inch layer of porous blacktop above stone.
A native of Yorkshire, England, Dickinson trained for a decade at the Fair Hill Training Center. His Tapeta surfaces at Presque Isle near Erie, Pa. and Golden Gate in northern California have been lauded as two of the best synthetic surfaces in the country.
Vice president of Golden Gate Fields Cal Rainey said Golden Gate likes its synthetic track and has confidence in it. He gives the Tapeta surface high marks compared to the other synthetics, but felt the whole process of installing these artificial surfaces as premature.
"The tracks were tested in a racing environment in the U. S., " Rainey noted, "so we had no track record to go on."
Dickinson was dubbed the mad scientist. He began tinkering with the all-weather concept in 1992. Working with 52 different formulas he whittled them down and four years later installed the first Tapeta track at his farm and training center set on the northern stretches of the Chesapeake Bay in North East, Maryland. Eight Grade-1 winners came off his farm in eight years, including Da Hoss who won the Breeders' Cup Mile in 1996 and 1998.
Tapeta Footings Co. was established in 2007 for the manufacturing of the synthetic surface that Dickinson installed at thoroughbred racetracks and about a dozen training facilities around the world, including the Fair Hill Training Center.
Dickinson did not respond to a request for comment in early April on the current state of synthetic tracks. In 2010 I asked him what is the key to a consistent synthetic surface?
"Any track whether it be synthetic, dirt or turf should not be hard or loose and cuppy," Dickinson explained. "You want it tight on the top and soft underneath. The top two inches should be quite firm so a horse can grab hold of it.
"People suggest there isn't enough slide and when the horse hits the ground, it stops abruptly. That is not the reason. The tracks have been too loose. A horse hardly slides at all on turf. Horsemen know a good turf course is the safest surface. You want a stable surface, not a moveable one."
Dickinson's crown jewel is the Tapeta surface at Mayden, the world's largest racecourse in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The ex-trainer typically spends a couple months there preparing the track for the $29 million Dubai World Cup races staged in late March.
At the 2014 Dubai World Championship much was made of the flagging American participation. Prior to implementation of synthetic surface American runners won eight of the first 14 World Cups. Rumors were circulated that the charcoal-grey Tapeta racing surface on the main track could be ripped up with a state-of-the art dirt track lined up to replace it to encourage U. S.-trained horses to show up in 2015.
Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum-- the younger brother of Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed who built Meydan-- told the Gulf News that the synthetic surface was inconsistent. He claimed that "not all the horses give their best" on the surface, that "it needs to be changed" and suggested that the lack of any American runners in the $10 Million Dubai World Cup is "because they are not satisfied with the ground."
Dickinson responded in an interview with Press Association Sport: "I have been very happy with the performance of the Tapeta track. All the races have been fair and on a level playing field. Above all it was safe, and all the horses appear to have come home safe and sound.
"The winners have come from all corners of the globe, from Abu Dhabi, South Africa, Ireland, England and Hong Kong. The Golden Shaheen was six furlongs run in 1.10 minutes, which is what you would expect from horse of that caliber. All the jockeys and trainers I've spoken to have been happy with the track. Tapeta have had three people helping the ground staff crew prepare for the big night.
"It's a world-class track for world-class performers. They have come from North, South, East and West and all delivered their best. Hong Kong trainer John Moore was thrilled with the surface and his jockey Joao Moreira said it was fabulous."
British trainer Ed Dunlop came to Dickinson's defense. His colt Red Cadeaux finished second behind Animal Kingdom in the Dubai World Cup in 2013.
"An American horse won very impressively last year so let's not jump to conclusions," Dunlop said. "I don't know a lot about the Tapeta surface but I am very happy with it, Red Cadeaux handles it. There has been much discussion about (turf champion) The Fugue because of the uncertainty of whether she would handle Tapeta. But if you put in dirt there would be an even bigger uncertainty of her handling it. How many European horses would win if it goes back to the dirt?"
Where did it all go wrong? The pendulum started to sway the other way when the European turf horses unleashed their most successful Breeders' Cup raid at Santa Anita Park in 2008 and 2009. In the wake of those dominating performances a majority of American trainers had seen enough. They promptly lobbied to reinstate conventional dirt at California tracks. They won.
"These are performance horses, and they are supposed to perform at a high level," noted John Shirrefs, the trainer of the legendary Zenyatta. "You're taking that away from them."
Graham Motion has stepped into the upper echelon of top-flight American trainers. His trainee Animal Kingdom scored on dirt in the 2012 Kentucky Derby and on Tapeta in the $10 Million Dubai World Cup in 2013. Last year Motion's stable won 127 races and earned $5. 8 million in North America. His charges train regularly over the Tapeta surface at the Fair Hill Training Center.
“The biggest problem I have is that people overlook the statistics about fatalities,” Motion said. “The synthetic track we have at Fair Hill, that we’ve maintained in the way we’ve been told to maintain it, we’ve never had a problem. The synthetic track problems come down to proper maintenance or upkeep, or that they hadn’t been put in right in the beginning. I’m stunned by all the negativity toward these tracks.”
For Motion and the vast majority of American trainers the hope is that all of the experimentation and brainpower that went into constructing the revolutionary synthetic surfaces will be applied to the next generation of dirt tracks to build a world-class track that is as safe as a synthetic surface for horses and riders.