Synthetic Tracks and the Kentucky Derby
by Trevor Whenham - 04/15/2008
In the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby we are going to hear endlessly about synthetic surfaces. People will be talking about how well horses will be able to transition from synthetic to dirt, and what meaning we can draw from races that took place on a synthetic surface. For serious handicappers the synthetic surface is the cause of serious headaches. For casual horseplayers, though, all the talk about synthetic surfaces is just confusing and overwhelming. If you don't understand a little bit about them then you could make a serious mistake when making your picks without even knowing it. Here's a quick primer on synthetic surfaces:
What are they?
A synthetic surface is used by an increasing number of thoroughbred racetracks to replace the dirt that horses run on. There are several different brands - Tapeta, Polytrack, and Cushion Track - and each is made somewhat differently, but they are all made of some combination of rubber and other binding agents that are shredded and combined together. When you look at the surface from a distance it looks mostly like dirt, but when you touch it you realize just how different it is. The surface is designed to drain better than dirt if it gets wet, and to be softer and more cushioned than dirt.
Why are tracks switching over to synthetic surfaces?
The surfaces were introduced in North America in an attempt to cut down on the number of serious or fatal injuries suffered by horses. At least in theory the synthetic surfaces are easier on horses because the impact is softer so the horses' muscles and bones have to endure less stress. In reality, the surfaces are very controversial in the thoroughbred business. Some people feel that they are doing their job well, while others feel that the surfaces don't eliminate injuries and are causing more and different problems for the horses that run on it. The synthetic surfaces are relatively new in North America, so there isn't really enough long-term data yet to reach a conclusive decision on whether the tracks are a good thing or not.
Where is the surface used?
California has legislated that synthetic tracks are mandatory, so all tracks in the state have moved away from dirt. Synthetic tracks are also used at Keeneland and Turfway in Kentucky, Arlington near Chicago, and Woodbine in Toronto. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont are all run on dirt.
What's the difference?
Simply put - everything. The synthetic surface does not act like a dirt surface, so horses that run well on the dirt may not run well on the synthetic and vice versa. In horse racing it has always been a challenge to figure out if a horse can run on dirt or turf, and now this is a third variable to figure out. The problem is that we haven't had enough experience with the different types of synthetic surfaces to know for sure which horses will be bothered by the surfaces and which won't. As a general rule, a horse that likes the turf is more likely to like the synthetic surface than one who likes the dirt. That is a rule full of problems, though. Some horses will be completely untroubled by a change in surface, while others will look like a star on one surface and a mule on the other.
So why does this matter so much for the Derby?
It's hard enough to figure out how to handicap three year olds heading to the Derby at the best of times because they come from all over the country, and they have raced against different levels of competition over different distances at different times of the year. Now it's even harder to figure out. Horses that have prepped exclusively in California will have never run on dirt, so we have no way of knowing how they are going to run when they get to Kentucky - It's one more variable that has to be factored into the odds. Another problem is the Blue Grass Stakes, held at Keeneland. It has been a major prep race for the Derby for years, but now it is run on a Polytrack surface. Horses are still aimed at it, but poor performances are hard to understand. That problem is going to be very significant this year. Pyro was likely going to be the Kentucky Derby favorite if he had done well in the Blue Grass. He was a terrible 10th. Now handicappers have to figure out whether the problem was that the horse obviously didn't like the surface, or if he also is falling out of form. What you decide there will determine whether you love the horse or hate him.