My first post on synthetic racing surfaces was on September 26, 2007, nine days after this site was launched. I suppose that I can rightly be called a synthetic skeptic; while heartened at the possibility of a surface that would decrease injuries, I found hasty, and perhaps even dangerous, the quick adoption of synthetics without any science to support them: who knew what the consequences might be of racing on such surfaces?
I added my voice to those that called for research, long-term, data-based research, on the effects of racing on synthetics, and I was one of many who welcomed the introduction of the Equine Injury Database. Finally, some science, in addition to the anecdotes and the emotions.
I will admit that I’ve never been quite sure that there’s a need for a third surface in racing; I’ve wondered why so much money has been put into developing synthetic surfaces, when perhaps that money might have been equally well spent on making safer our existing racing surfaces.
And my consideration of synthetics has always been through the prism of safety: not on the alternatives to a muddy track, not on the benefits of fewer scratches in bad weather, not on the confusion that’s been caused in racing divisions, not on the real or imagined difficulty in handicapping synthetics. Those factors are not inconsequential, but my interest has been largely focused on whether synthetic surfaces are in fact safer for horses and for humans.
In June in Lexington, Dr. Tim Parkin and Dr. Mary Scollay reported that based on one year’s data, the difference in injury rates on dirt and synthetics was not statistically significant. They cautioned that one year’s data was not enough from which to draw conclusions.
This week’s report sings a different tune: Dr. Parkin declared definitively that in two full years of reported data, a statistically significant lower number of horses suffered fatal injuries on synthetics than on dirt.
It’s the science we’ve been waiting for. Fewer horses die on synthetics.
Great news. Seriously. That’s great news.
But it’s still not all we need.
At every discussion of equine injury that I’ve attended, all the participants have stressed the multi-variable nature of its causes. All have said that track surface is only one piece of a very big injury puzzle. And even though we can definitely say that in the last two years, fewer horses suffered fatal injuries on synthetic surfaces than on dirt, we can’t say that synthetics are definitely safer than dirt…or that any given synthetic surface is safer than any given dirt surface.
When, in the last couple of years, some initial reports indicated that injury rates began to decline on synthetics, observers have wondered whether it’s the surface that caused the decline, or the complete renovation of a track, top to bottom. Would a brand-new dirt track have led to fewer injuries as well? Perhaps we’ll find out this winter at Santa Anita.
Should dirt tracks with safety records that match those on synthetic tracks start thinking about replacing their surfaces? What if they don’t? What will be the public backlash if the industry doesn’t adapt to reflect statistics that on first, uncomplicated blush appear to say something simple – “Synthetic tracks are safer” – but which in fact say nothing quite so definitive?
I admit it: I’d hate to see synthetic tracks universally replace dirt. I can’t explain why; it’s not about tradition (or maybe it is a little bit), and I certainly have no fondness for muddy tracks (though I do like the idea of the mudder). But I also hate to see horses break down on the race track, and if synthetic surfaces will absolutely do that, I will support them.
The Jockey Club, the Equine Injury Database, the participating tracks, Dr. Tim Parkin and Dr. Mary Scollay are providing what we’re asking for: Science. Research. Numbers. They deserve our kudos, and our thanks.
In the Jockey Club release on the study results, Dr. Parkin said,
“Trends will continue to emerge and evolve as additional data becomes available for study and as more complex statistical analyses are performed. This will allow us to understand how different variables, alone and in concert, may impact the risk of fatality.”
Fascinating stuff, and I will wait with interest to see what variables are considered, and how they will be analyzed. I won’t, just yet, join the chorus of those declaring synthetics the savior, and I will hope that perhaps, one of those “different variables” to which Parkin alludes might be an examination of the dirt tracks with comparable safety records to synthetics.
Jockey Club release on recent results from the Equine Injury Database
More info from the Equine Injury Database, including summary statistics
My report from the June 2010 Jockey Club Safety and Welfare Summit, including info on the types of injuries that are reported to the EID.
A collection of all of my posts on synthetics over the last three+ years (click “next entries” at the bottom of the list to get to older posts.)