I’ve been reading a lot these days about the good old days of dirt tracks in California and how much better off racing was before the installation of synthetic tracks. But I would just like to offer a slightly different perspective on the subject – a perspective from someone who has worked in racing in California for 30 years and been a witness to many changes.
With the rain cancellations we have experienced this season, it is natural to draw comparisons to the good old days of dirt tracks when racing was rarely ever cancelled due to weather. But there is so much more involved here than just a “show must go on” ideology. Sure, we ran in the slop. I watched many races in pouring rain, when the horses looked like they were running in pea soup and the horses and riders ended up completely coated with mud. But I also remember riders saying it was like “running on concrete.” I remember horrific breakdowns.
What we need to remember is that the times have changed in more ways than one. We haven’t been the victims of some cruel hoax; we didn’t have the synthetic tracks forced on us against our better judgment. Rather, California racing was trying to do what it has always done: boldly lead the industry to make racing safer for both the equine and human athletes.
I think we can be proud, out here in California, of the “kinder, gentler” racing industry we have become. In my early days, in the 70’s and 80’s, the newspapers were not filled with statistics about the number of injuries and breakdowns on the racetracks, but not because injuries were nonexistent.
But things began to change in this country. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) was founded in 1980. Drug testing became a common part of sports, from baseball to horseracing. Where once you never heard about what happened to horses when they were finished racing, today there are more high profile equine retirement facilities and programs than you can shake a stick at (if that’s your idea of fun). It has all been part of an overall trend to examine the traditional ways we have been doing things, to put them under scrutiny, make people accountable, and establish the highest levels of safety and integrity in sports.
As a student of history, I know it is human nature to glorify the good old days. Perhaps it is a blessing of our nature that we remember the good times while allowing the troubles and tribulations to fade into the recesses of memory. On the other hand, if we truly want to learn from history we have to be objective. Maybe the good old days had their drawbacks too.
Before we forge ahead, I hope everyone involved in the decision making process will make their best effort to uncover the truth and to carefully examine the available statistics on injury rates both on dirt and synthetic tracks. The future of our sport depends on the decisions we make now. These are the good old days.