An Argument for Dirt: Letter to the Editor, by Steven Crist

Saratoga | Sarah Andrew

To the Editor: The campaign to abolish dirt racing in favor of synthetic surfaces may be well-intentioned, but is a dangerous knee-jerk overreaction that would accomplish little but the destruction of Thoroughbred racing as we know it.

These advocates seem to have forgotten that we tried this a generation ago, when Southern California, Keeneland, and Dubai all switched to synthetic racing–and then tore out those tracks when it became obvious that they were producing misleading results and undeserving Grade I winners and champions. As Bob Baffert correctly said at the time, synthetic surfaces make mediocre horses look good and good horses look mediocre.

Do we really want to return to a randomizing form of racing under which Street Sense struggled home in the Breeders' Futurity and Blue Grass on synthetics, as opposed to his definitive dirt victories in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby? Would Curlin be the breed-changing stallion he has become if his dull fourth-place finish on synthetic in the Breeders' Cup Classic was as good as we had ever seen from him?

The raw data that has led people to conclude that synthetics are safer is deceptive, an apples-to-oranges comparison that disregards the poor condition of the nation's lower-tier dirt tracks and ignores the anecdotal evidence of increased soft-tissue injuries on synthetic surfaces. The more important data is the sharp reduction in breakdowns on dirt tracks in the last decade. That is a record of major improvement that, coupled with other new procedures and technology, can continue to the point where dirt is every bit as “safe” as synthetics without discarding centuries of breeding for dirt and grass.

There have been more catastrophic deaths on grass than dirt this summer at Saratoga. Should we therefore abolish grass racing too, and continue signaling our alleged virtue by urging the rest of the world to uproot its grass courses and go all-synthetic as well?

Switching to synthetics will irreparably harm American racing and breeding and will not placate a single foe of our sport.

Steven Crist

Hempstead, NY

The writer covered racing for nearly 40 years for The New York Times, Racing Times and Daily Racing Form. He was among the inaugural inductees to the Racing Hall of Fame's media honor roll in 2011 and received the Eclipse Award of Merit in 2016.

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