Despite rainy weather and a sometimes muddy track, the Saratoga Race Course had a perfect season in 2008.
None of the more than 3,000 horses that raced during the 36-day meet sustained injuries that required them to be euthanized. The absence of catastrophic thoroughbred injuries continued a three-year decline in such accidents at Saratoga and the other two thoroughbred tracks under the stewardship of the New York Racing Association: Belmont Park and Aqueduct.
“That is a big deal,” said Joel Leveson, the director of investigations for the state Racing and Wagering Board.
The record could provide evidence that properly maintained dirt tracks offer comparable or even better protection than synthetic tracks when it comes to preventing racehorse injuries. To date, a total of 19 horses have been put to death after racing at NYRA-operated tracks, lowering the rate to 1.21 per 1,000 starts, according to figures provided by the Racing and Wagering Board.
These figures are below those on synthetic tracks compiled by the Grayson Jockey Club Research Foundation this year. The Kentucky-based nonprofit organization found that synthetic tracks averaged about 1.47 catastrophic fractures per 1,000 starts.
Members of the state Task Force on Retired Race Horses are reviewing the number of injuries sustained at the state’s tracks while determining whether there is a safety benefit to running horses on synthetic surfaces. John Sabini, Racing and Wagering’s chairman and co-chairman of the task force, said synthetic surfaces need to be studied longer.
“The jury is still out, in my opinion,” he said following a meeting of the task force in Schenectady on Thursday.
The debate over synthetic tracks gained steam this year after the highly publicized death of Eight Belles, a filly that collapsed after sustaining compound fractures of both of her front ankles during the Kentucky Derby. The 13-member task force sponsored a daylong forum on the subject in July, where track officials, veterinarians, trainers, jockeys and industry analysts discussed the benefits and drawbacks of adopting synthetic surfaces for New York’s tracks.
Synthetic tracks vary in their composition but usually include some combination of sand, synthetic fibers, rubber and wax. In 2007, California’s Horse Racing Board ordered that all major tracks in that state install some form of synthetic surface before the end of the year.
But the trend toward such tracks seems to have as many detractors as it does proponents. Veterinarians participating in July’s forum suggested that the composition of tracks wasn’t as important as their maintenance, while other track officials suggested that there aren’t enough data to justify the $10 million cost of installing synthetic surfaces.
During the meeting Thursday, members suggested that there needs to be more data gathered from North America’s nine synthetic tracks before an adequate assessment can be made. Others suggested adopting a set of guidelines for grooming dirt surfaces patterned after the tracks with the lowest rate of horse injuries.
“There’s pretty much no code of action on how to do these things,” said Karin Bump, an equine professor at Cazenovia College.
However, the low rates of injuries at tracks like Saratoga could also be attributed to the caliber of horses racing there. Because the Saratoga meet hosts many high-stakes races, Sabini said that more attention is given there to both the track condition and the horses racing on it.
“You have a quality of racing there in terms of owners and trainers,” he said. “You have the best trainers using the best practices.”
The task force is due to issue a conclusion sometime in 2010. Until then, Sabini said, the group will continue to review data from New York’s tracks.
“We’re looking at everything,” he said.