Replacing dirt with artificial turf at New York’s thoroughbred tracks is an idea starting to draw more attention after the fatal injury to a horse running in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
The New York Racing Association, which operates the state’s three tracks, is interested in the idea, and preservation advocates say the change is worth considering at Saratoga Race Course, despite the changes to the historic track’s character such a move would bring.
A daylong forum on converting the existing dirt tracks will be held July 29 at Saratoga Spa State Park by the state Task Force on Retired Race Horses, which met Tuesday at the headquarters of the Racing and Wagering Board.
The task force was created last year by state legislation and was holding only its second meeting Tuesday. It is, among other things, charged with studying the economics of installing artificial turf.
Jack Knowlton, a prominent Saratoga horse owner and a member of the task force, said artificial turf appears to cut fatal horse injuries about 25 percent, although it may increase minor injuries. Opinions among horsemen are mixed, he said, with his own trainer one of the opponents of making the switch. Most jockeys appear in favor, Knowlton said.
He was asked after the meeting about Saturday’s fatal incident at the Kentucky Derby, when the filly Eight Belles collapsed after finishing second, having broken her two front ankles, and was euthanized. Knowlton declined to speculate if the horse might have escaped injury had the race been run on artificial turf, but again noted the 25 percent decline in fatal injuries.
John Lee, spokesman for the New York Racing Association, said NYRA is seriously interested in moving toward installing artificial turf at its three tracks: Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, and Belmont Park and Aqueduct Race Track in the New York City metropolitan area. But he estimated the costs of conversion at up to $50 million, if training tracks at Belmont and Saratoga are included.
Most major races in the United States, including the Kentucky Derby and the Travers Stakes in Saratoga, are run on dirt tracks, which could be replaced by the artificial surfaces. Lee said the grass track, on which about a third of Saratoga’s races are run, would likely remain.
Lee noted that many Saratoga horsemen like the Oklahoma training track the way it is, and he said NYRA would probably make the change first at the Belmont training track — although it has made no decision to do so. For two years, NYRA has been in bankruptcy proceedings, from which it is now emerging because the state in February granted it a new 25-year franchise to run the tracks. Lee said any such expensive investments had been off the table during this period, and that the delay may work in racing’s favor, because the artificial track technology is improving as a result of experiences elsewhere in the country — like at the Santa Anita track in California, where drainage was a problem.
The softer synthetic surfaces are made of material such as recycled tires, sand and wax, Lee said.
Harness tracks do not have the same safety issues with horses, and so are unlikely to convert to artificial turf.
After the meeting, several members of the task force said they do not yet know enough about the issue to say whether they would recommend making the switch.
That was also the position of Joanne Yepsen, a Saratoga County supervisor who is a member of the county’s racing committee and a founding member of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation’s race track coalition. Yepsen, a Democrat, said while natural tracks would be best from a preservation standpoint, the safety of horses must be taken into account. She noted that track conditions appeared to be good at Churchill Downs on Saturday, the scene of the fatal accident, which may indicate a change in the type of track is needed.
Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, R-Schenectady, whose district includes Saratoga Springs, said he is inclined to favor the new technology, because racing is a very dangerous sport for both horse and rider.
Joseph Dalton, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, said he would expect NYRA to do a lot more research before it made the change at Saratoga, and to perhaps install it downstate first.
Also at the task force meeting, members discussed a survey they plan to do of horse owners, to determine how many retired race horses there and to what extent their fate is problematic.
Knowlton said later that horse slaughter for food is banned in the United States, but that some old horses are likely still being shipped to neighboring countries for slaughter.