By Bill Finley
For a long time, it wasn’t easy being Richard Shapiro. As the head of the California Horse Racing Board, in 2006, he led the movement that required most of California’s tracks to convert to synthetic surfaces. Shapiro said he believed they were necessary to cut down on the number of fatalities at the California tracks. He wanted racing in California to be as safe as possible, both for the welfare of the horse and to quiet rumblings from animal rights activists who were starting to set their sights on the sport.
He achieved that, as the number of fatalities did indeed drop significantly. But rather than being hailed as a hero, he was vilified by gamblers, trainers, owners and even some members of the media. It got to be so bad that he received one e-mail where the person demanded that he be hung from the Seabiscuit statue at Santa Anita. For myriad reasons, a lot of people hated synthetic surfaces and they cast Shapiro as the villain who they said had ruined California racing.
No one can say for sure what would have happened at Santa Anita at this meet had the track not ripped out its synthetic surface in 2010, but, based on irrefutable statistics, synthetic tracks are safer than dirt tracks. Would 23 horses have died at the meet if a synthetic surface were still in place and would Santa Anita be caught up in a crisis that many consider a threat not only to Santa Anita’s future, but that of the entire sport? It’s hard to say, but the statistics suggest otherwise.
In the meantime, Shapiro is still waiting to hear his first apology. That’s fine with him. He understands that this is a complex issue and that, surely, the track surface alone, is not the sole contributor to fatalities at Santa Anita. But he does think Santa Anita and Del Mar should have struck with synthetic surfaces.
“I’ve looked at it and I have been following what’s going on with horror,” he said. “I have been really upset and I look at the problem in totality. I think it’s a very complex problem. Do I think it’s track surfaces? I think that is a component. Do I think that the industry abandoned it too quickly? Yes, I think they did.”
Shapiro took over the same year Barbaro broke down in the Preakness and later had to be put down and Del Mar had one of the worst meets in its history from a safety standpoint, with 14 horses breaking down. He sensed that horse safety was a growing concern among the general public and that too many people viewed racing as a sport that amounted to animal cruelty. He wanted to be proactive.
A synthetic surface was already in place at Turfway Park and was meeting all expectations. A handful of European tracks, in order to have flat racing in the winter, had also gone the synthetic route and were not having any problems with the new tracks.
The CHRB voted to order California tracks to install synthetic surfaces by the end of 2007.
The switch to synthetic tracks was not exactly a smooth one. Shapiro admits the CHRB should have given tracks more time to make the transition and work with the manufacturers of the surface to work out the kinks. There were bumps in the road, including a period when Santa Anita had to close down due to drainage problems. In addition, synthetic surfaces were hailed as a panacea. They were not. Horse were still breaking down.
“When I pushed for the synthetic surfaces it was because we had a rash of breakdowns not to dissimilar to what is now going on,” Shapiro said. “And so I’m looking back and I think that perhaps I acted too hastily in rushing to put in the synthetic surfaces at all of the tracks. On the other hand, it was a very difficult problem and we did a lot of study and we talked to a lot of companies that had different tracks. That situation failed because there wasn’t a consistency in the tracks that were put in.
The Polytrack that was put in at Del Mar had too much wax and the weather in the morning versus the afternoon created a huge inconsistency with that track. Then there was the track that was installed at Santa Anita, which was done by a different company. They put in so much sand and had other problems that their track fell apart. So while the idea I think was good and valid, I think that had there been more uniformity in the application of putting in these tracks things would have worked out better.”
But Shapiro was right about one very important thing: the synthetic tracks were safer than dirt tracks and the lives of many horses were saved.
According to Jockey Club statistics, from 2009 through 2018, 1.2 horses per thousand starters were euthanized in synthetic surface racing. In dirt racing, the number was 1.97.
Yet, many synthetic surface tracks, including Keeneland, gave into the constant drumbeat of criticism from everyone from the $2 bettor to owner Jess Jackson, who refused to race Rachel Alexandra over “plastic.”
The CHRB relented and Santa Anita went back to dirt in 2010 and Del Mar did the same in 2015. Golden Gate Fields is the only track left in the state with a synthetic surface. In 2008, Shapiro resigned from the CHRB and has had virtually nothing to do with racing since.
While catastrophic injury rates remain low at Golden Gate, which registered 1.12 per thousand starters in 2018, at both Santa Anita and Del Mar, the switch back to dirt meant more fatalities. To simplify things, the TDN did not account for turf races or deaths that occurred during training hours as some of Santa Anita’s fatalities have come over its dirt training track. The clearest way to compare the safety of each surface was to compare the number of deaths during racing over dirt versus synthetic surfaces. In the three years since dirt was reinstalled at Santa Anita, which does not include the current meet, there has been an average of 15.3 fatalities in races. During the last three years of synthetic surface racing, the number was 9.3. Using the same formula for Del Mar, the number went from 3.66 to 7. The numbers would look a lot more damning for dirt tracks is breakdowns during training hours were included. On the other hand, Del Mar and Santa Anita both took on more racing dates after Hollywood Park shut down.
To Shapiro, those numbers suggest a better option would have been to stay with synthetic tracks, all the while working the bugs out and trying to make them even safer.
“What I am saying is that we had an opportunity to learn,” he said. “Then we threw the baby out with the bath water.”
It was a difficult time for Shapiro, and he didn’t handle the criticism well. He was caught on camera “keying” a car owned by one of his harshest critics.. His new passion is hunter jumpers and he says he barely stays connected with thoroughbred racing.
Since the Santa Anita situation started, PETA, Senator Diane Feinstein and Congresswoman Judy Chu have called on the California tracks to go back to synthetic surfaces and their demands have come with threats that should not be taken lightly.
Shapiro says he doubts anyone cares what he thinks, but if someone were to ask him if a return to synthetics was a magic bullet his answer would actually be no.
“Horse racing has totally ignored the fact that this breed has become so much more fragile, and is not understanding or is not trying to understand why the breed become that way,” he said. “What is it that’s going on that these horses simply can’t withstand running 40 miles an hour? Most of the breakdowns are on the front end, whether they’re their fetlocks, whether it’s their pasterns, whether it’s their cannon bones. That’s where most of the injuries are. So I think there is a myriad of issues that need to be studied, and a need to make correlations. Unfortunately, the industry remains so fragmented that overall it isn’t dealing with it.
“Medication, I think is a huge issue. I’m totally opposed to race day medication. I am totally opposed to Lasix. It’s not natural. As well, I think there should be medical records from the day a horse is born that show what procedures are done on every horse. When a foal is born, let’s say they toe out in their front, then they will immediately try to do corrective measure, so that when the horse reaches the sales arena it doesn’t toe out anymore and that way they’ll bring more money if he’s straight. What does that do to the natural anatomy? Those types of procedures are corrective in terms of visually corrective, but are they hurting actually the soundness of the horse?”
Shapiro tried to buck the system once and it didn’t work. He said that he believes that in light of the Santa Anita situation it is time for people in the industry to start opening their minds, forget about the way things used to be done, and welcome new ideas, no matter how radical they may seem.