Friday, March 5, 2010

For What It's Worth

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.


zraces said...

Good thoughts. The track at Santa Anita is the safest in history. Never have they had a meet with no racing fatalities on the main track after 2 and 1/2 months.
Turf Paradise has had 8 days cancelled on its' dirt track with the same weather systems as we have had. Who's to say we could have run safely on dirt?
The Thoroughbred Times cover story last week shows that synthetic tracks in North America have faired better in their betting pools than dirt tracks.
For good info on this topic, read Ground Control in the TDN magazine.

frank mitchell said...


This is quite a good post. Unfortunately, so many comments and posts on the topic are too heavy on emotion, too light on information.

But you've grouped most of the serious questions, and we all need to consider the best resolutions in a practical process to do the best for the racing people and racing horses. Without them, we don't have a game to play.

All the best,

Amateurcapper said...


If only it was as simple as fixing the SA main track surface to cure what ails racing in southern California. The track's drainage problems are merely a symptom of a disease process that is killing horse racing.

Stronach's lobbying for someone other than he and MEC to pay for the new track is only the tip of the iceberg that is polarizing the decision-makers in the horse racing industry. Once there is a decision made on the direction of the racing surface and who foots the bill, the quake will cause tremors that could be felt throughout the country and will have a ripple effect on horse racing worldwide.

Stronach is trying to monopolize the industry in North America by turning Santa Anita into the Woodbine of California. I'm not saying if this is good or bad, it just is.

IMHO, it seems his goal is to create an empire to compete globally with Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin/Darley programs in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and Australia as well as the Coolmore operations in the Ireland, the U.S., and Australia.

Kentucky racing and breeding programs, the "old money" in the game which includes the Breeders' Cup, Ltd. are really going to feel the pressure. Evidence Will Farish's "disappointed" response to Satish Sanan's speaking out of turn about making Santa Anita the permanent home of the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. Sanan in turn backed away from his quotes.

This is going to be some wild ride...unfortunately, all this posturing will take away from the magnificent RACHEL vs. ZENYATTA match up the industry should be focusing on.

ptp said...


Nice work. I agree with Frank; emotion plays far too much in racings decision making methodology. It seems the make-up of a track is the third rail, like getting governments to deal with social security. Just like in other big issues like lowering takeout, lowering the cost of owning a horse, betting exchanges, the use of slot money to help racing grow - stats and honest debate will tell the story, not a wish of turning back the clock.


Anonymous said...

I applaud your observations and comments, Mary, but is there a reason why nobody has noted that trainers of 2010 know that they will be judged when one of their horses breaks down (compared with the atitude of,say, 2005, where a trainer would shrug and say "geez, S#!+ Happens!) and that this could possibly be a large part of the reason for reduced fatalities regardless of surface?
25 years in the game has taught me that 95% of breakdowns are due to management decisions.
Note D. O'Niell's comments of personal embarassment on Del Mar's opening day 2009 to understand what I'm trying to say.
Whatever, the stats are slowly but surely getting better, and that is a huge plus for the game.

The_Knight_Sky said...

Ms Forney wrote:

But I also remember riders saying it was like “running on concrete.”


I am pretty certain the new modern dirt tracks will not be installed in a deteriorated state.

Trainer Bruce Headley has been quoted saying that the deterioration set in with the addition of wood products to the racing surface in the 70's. Perhaps.

But no one wants to address the real reasons for the breakdowns and injuries that prevent the Southland thoroughbred from racing as frequently as in other racing jurisdictions.

The sooner California racing addresses the backstretch medication issues, the sooner the quality of racing improves. A stringent policy must implemented and enforced. The sooner the better it will be for the rest of the country.

California Racing has a chance to reclaim its position as the best in the country.

Imagine if a dirt track was in place five months ago, we may have already have seen a race with Zenyatta matched up against Rachel Alexandra.

Let us not waste more opportunities. Let us do the right thing. A new and properly installed dirt track is a start.

Unknown said...

This is the best post you have ever done Mary! Keep up the good work!!!

zraces said...

The Knight Sky: If a dirt track was in place, a huge mare like Zenyatta might only have lasted 4 races. All those works and every race but one on synthetic, and she's too sound to retire. That used to happen around here a lot.

Unknown said...

Wow, Mary! A rational discussion regarding a highly complex issue. Maybe you should start a health-care blog!

Anonymous said...

Nice to see someone can actually state reality. This track at SA, if it drained would be as close to perfect as anything CA has seen in 20+ years I have been a fan. Yes some trainers have gripes, some of them have a lot of credibility, but most have none. Many of the trainers complaining would complain again if it was dirt. The racing at SA has been great, speed horses can win, closers can win, but best of all through last week the safety in the afternoon has been perfect. If the cancellations would have been on Wednesday instead of a few of the bigger days no one would even be talking about it. Hope Mr. Stronach can see through the BS and give the track more time.

RacetrackJack said...

As a racetracker for forty years,I am by no means any kind of authority on synthetic surfaces.In all the confusion and debate over which is the most desirable surface on which to run,I have yet to hear anyone mention the tangible success the track crew at Oaklawn Park has enjoyed since they improved the safety of their track a few years ago, at a tenth of the cost.Cali folk to proud to ask advice from the Arkansasans about a safe race course??

Anonymous said...

Churchill Downs has a ton more rain than Santa Anita but yet their DIRT surface DRAINS as well as any other surface in the country. I would love to know why that dirt doesn't work in the Southern California climate.

watcher said...

I agree 100% with you. Santa Anita's dirt track was installed in 1934 and they still didn't have it right 60 years later! Yet the opponents of synthetics want us to give up on it after only three years of use. Maybe they need to watch the replays of all the horrific breakdowns on the good ol' dirt surface before they lead us all over the cliff again.

Anonymous said...

I'm not on the track anymore so I can only listen to anecdotal information as to the pros and cons of Santa Anita's synthetic surface. Like you Mary, though, I was on the track for 30 years and I know that no one was ever happy with it. The wood chips were a response to the track being too hard as I recall. The synthetic track was a response to too many breakdowns. Though it was misguidededly rushed through for CHRB to mandate all the tracks install it within the year, rather than try a test track, that damage has been done. IMHO, admittedly as an outsider now, if we got back to dirt, we're back to where we started which no one was ever happy with in the last 30 years. If they get synthetic right, regarding the draining, maintenance and possibly replenishing the worn out material as it breaks down, one might have something far better than dirt.

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