More deaths on Del Mar’s Polytrack

News item: Two more horses broke down during morning workouts over Del Mar’s main track on Thursday morning and had to be euthanized, meaning there have been nine fatalities during the first 22 days of this 37-day summer meet. A 10th broke down during a turf race earlier in the meet and was euthanized. The total number of fatalities surpasses the death totals at Del Mar from last year (eight) and 2007 (six).

Reaction: Del Mar and every race track in the state needs to take a hard look at their surfaces and strongly consider the installation of safer, gentlier tracks. Oh wait, we already went down that road, didn’t we?

Del Mar, on the heels of a terrible 2006 meet in terms of fatalities and the Barbaro tragedy in the Preakness, installed Polytrack before the 2007 season because — we were told — it would reduce deaths and injuries. We were told they were maintenance free. We were told they would attract horsemen from all over the country. We were told they would lead to larger fields. We were told they would cure world hunger … well, the synthetic proponents didn’t go that far, but you get the point.

So far, everything we have been told has turned out to be false. Correct me if I’m wrong, but has Saratoga and its dirt track been beseiged by so many fatal breakdowns during its current meet? And the state of New York didn’t just waste $40-plus million on the installation of these “safer and kinder” surfaces.

Oh yeah, and want more good news? If you’re a horse player, tread lightly next week at Del Mar. On Monday and Tuesday, the track may be power harrowed, meaning we don’t know if a parade of come-from-behind long shots will pop up or if the speed bias that has existed for much of the summer will continue to hold true.

As respected trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said on an NTRA teleconference recently: “If I knew what horses preferred (synthetics) I might quit training to become a gambler, because I never know who’s going to run well on it or how they’re going to run.”

To be fair, McLaughlin likes his horses to train on the artificial tracks, but abhors running them over synthetics. He believes the fake tracks won’t be around much longer.

“I think that before we see more synthetics tracks, we’ll see synthetics going back to dirt,” he said.

Meanwhile, Richard Shapiro, the man who led the California Horse Racing Board during the time synthetics were mandated, pleaded no contest Tuesday to misdemeanor charges of vandalizing an owner’s car with a key. Shapiro was ordered by the court to pay $6,800 in damages to Jerry Jamgotchian, a frequent critic of Shapiro and the horse racing board who obviously got under Shapiro’s skin.

Yes, Jamgotchian sometimes goes overboard in his criticism of the CHRB and the California racing industry as a whole, vilifying his targets with such rancor that his messages that are often valid most times get lost in the ugliness of his attacks. But one thing is clear — his rants against artificial tracks have been right on. They never should have been installed before being tested as training tracks first.

6 thoughts on “More deaths on Del Mar’s Polytrack

  1. What can you say Art? This never ends and the lame SOB’s that run the Race Tracks never stop spinning the truth.

    Has anyone checked into the validity of Del Mars handle numbers? I think they’re a little shaky at best.

    How about the attendance? The had consecutive concerts last week on Friday and again on Saturday. Do you think the attendance numbers are a little misleading?

    They never stop misleading the public. Never!

  2. I hit Del Mar twice this year, both times it was packed. One was a concert, and once was when Zenyatta ran, but Del Mar still does very well. Actually, I thought Hollywood did pretty well on Thursdays after they shuttered Wednesday racing. Nothing like Del Mar, but they attracted a decent crowd for workdays.

  3. Art,
    I’m a big fan of your blog and enjoy your coverage, but I think your continued take on synthetics (especially for Del Mar) is way off base. Your main two argruments (it seems) against synthetics are that 1) they are not actually safer and 2) they put the handicapper at a disadvantage. I’ll address each point:

    1) For Del Mar, synthetics ARE safer than dirt. Fatalities at Del Mar with Polytrack are way down compared to years with dirt. To compare Del Mar and Saratoga is illogical and not fair. Del Mar is not Saratoga. Saratoga has a wider, broader track that can be maintained year round. Del Mar has the SD Fair running less than 3 weeks before Opening Day, making any sort of track maintenance impossible. Given their unique situations, Del Mar could never have a dirt track as well maintained or as safe as Saratoga’s. Synthetics, in my mind, are the next best option.

    2) To imply that handicapping synthetics isn’t possible is also not backed up by numbers. Favorites at Del Mar are winning at a roughly 33 percent clip, the standard for just about every track in the US. Horses (this year, at least, I’ll agree this wasn’t true two years ago) are winning on the lead, just off the lead, from the middle of the pack, and from the back of the pack. The track is fair, and the best horse is usually winning- how is this situation not good for handicappers?

    I agree synthetics are not perfect. They require much more maintenance and watering then was advertised. They’ve discouraged some owners and trainers from running their horses here. I, for one, would not have mandated that every track in the state install them (in my opinion, Santa Anita and Hollywood should still have dirt). But the fact remains, they HAVE reduced fatalities. And they HAVE produced fair results. To argue otherwise is just incorrect.

  4. Racingfan84,
    That’s all I keep hearing from synthetic supporters is that fatalities are down, fatalities are down, yet I never see hard, cold facts. Let us see them. Yes, they are down from 2006 when Del Mar had a terrible season, but what about the years before then? In my opinion, Del Mar needed to install a new base and put in a quality dirt track and maintain it properly. That would have done just fine. And what about all the new injuries that trainers are telling me about all the time, the soft-tissue injuries, etc. They may not kill a horse, but any type of injury is not good for a horse. Also, where are the larger fields we were promised? These artificial tracks were supposed to be saviors, or at least that’s the way they were sold to us. Facts suggest that’s been far from the truth.
    As for handicapping, you bring up some good points, but I for one don’t like betting a track where there is an inside speed bias for days and then suddenly, one day, nothing on the front end is winning. Why? Because they had to mess around with the track, something we were told would never happen because they were touted as being maintenance free. It’s only my opinion, but I think synthetic tracks are one of the worst things to hit the California racing industry in quite some time. If Saratoga, Belmont, Aqueduct, Oaklawn Park, Churchill Downs, etc. can maintain quality dirt tracks, why can’t Del Mar? To say they can’t, in my opinion, is a cop out.

  5. Art,

    Thanks for the reply, as I said before, I really do enjoy your blog.

    I understand your frustration with not having cold, hard facts, and I think, unfortunately, you’ll never get them. As far as I can tell (with limited googling), breakdown statistics, especially in regards to training and workouts, were not well documented prior to the last few years. Anedoctally, and comparing the first 3 years of Polytrack to the last few years of dirt at Del Mar, it would seem that fatalities are down.

    As a fairly young fan of racing, I often bring friends out to the track for their first racing experience. I can tell you that witnessing a breakdown just about guarantees these new fans will never come back- that’s why I feel the synthetics, while not saviors, are at least doing something right by reducing fatalities modestly.

    I think your point on revamping the dirt surface is valid, and probably would work for Santa Anita and Hollywood. Based on Del Mar’s ‘quirks’ (all the events taking place on the surface and the lack of maintenance time, the location next to the ocean, etc), in my opinion, it’s not possible for them to have a dirt track as safe as Saratoga’s.

    As far as bias, in my opinion, I haven’t seen any sort of bias differing from day to day (admittedly, I’ve only watched 6-7 days of racing from the current meet). Even if a bias does exist and has been changing by the day, I personally would welcome that from the old ‘speed is king’ dirt track that Del Mar had. Maybe the synthetics will encourage breeders to focus as much on stamina and durability as early speed.

  6. Racingfan84,
    Well keep bringing your friends out to the track, because heaven knows the sport needs all the young fans it can get. I’m not talking about the fans who come after the races, attend the concerts and are still counted as part of the afternoon racing attendance, but the fans like yourself who actually care about who wins and loses and the sport itself. Trust me when I tell you there have been days when speed has been king and then suddenly without any notice, the come-from-behinders rule the day. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that suddenly we are getting way more pick six carryovers in the Southland than we had before the synthetics. I just think they are tougher to handicap, although I have enjoyed a good meeting so far so I don’t know why I am complaining.

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