Dickinson: American Racing Must Go Back to Synthetics

Michael Dickinson | Horsephotos

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When it comes to synthetic racing surfaces, Michael Dickinson is obviously biased. He is the inventor of Tapeta Footings, now recognized as the leading synthetic surface manufacturer in North America, if not the world. If several American racetracks were to do away with dirt racing and replace it with synthetic tracks, Dickinson would stand to make a lot of money.

Yet, that doesn't mean that Dickinson, who now operates Tapeta Footings with his wife Joan Wakefield, does not have the statistics to back up how safe his tracks are when compared to dirt or that his points are valid about how a synthetic revolution would go a long way toward calming the fears the man on the street has about the dangers of horse racing.

“We can't carry on as we are,” Dickinson said. “The politician will close us down. We don't have a choice. I think it's a choice between safer surfaces or no racing at all. How close were we to having to close down Santa Anita? It's a different world now than what it was 30 years ago.”

His comments come in the aftermath of a Santa Anita meet where 30 horses had to be euthanized, which led to animal rights activists and significant politicians questioning whether or not there is still a place for horse racing in a society that is decidedly more conscious of animal welfare issues than it was 30 years ago. Though some groups have been more radical than others when calling for a ban on racing, many other groups have demanded only that the sport do everything it possibly can to make the sport as safe as possible for the horses.

There's no doubt that a movement away from dirt to synthetic tracks would go a long way toward accomplishing just that. According to the Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database, in 2018 there were 1.68 deaths per 1,000 starters on American racetracks. Dirt surfaces were the most dangerous at a rate of 1.86 per 1,000, while the rate on synthetic surfaces was 1.23 per 1,000. That's a 51% difference.

(Grass racing was actually the safest form of racing during 2018 with 1.20 breakdowns per 1,000 starters).

While 1.23 deaths per thousand starters on synthetic tracks is still a number that everyone in racing should aspire to lower, Dickinson says they tell a simple truth: synthetic tracks save lives.

“I definitely think we are going to see a second wave of synthetic tracks coming in,” he said. “Dirt tracks have been around for 100 years and they are past their 'sell-by date.' There are lots of really good trackmen who have been trying to improve them for over 30 years and it hasn't worked. The one thing is they can't control the weather and they are very reliant on the right amount of moisture. They are like an IED, they blow up in your face without warning. There's hardly a major track in America that hasn't had a major outbreak of fatalities on dirt from time to time.”

Dickinson said he has received several phone calls from racetrack operators and others inquiring about installing synthetic surfaces, including some from major tracks. He declined to name any of the tracks or people that have called.

Though the statistics may be on Dickinson's side, he doesn't necessarily have an easy sell on his hands. Several major racetracks, including Santa Anita, Keeneland and Del Mar, previously converted their main tracks to synthetic surfaces. In 2005, Turfway Park became the first U.S. track to install a synthetic surface, Polytrack. Though Turfway still has a synthetic track, Del Mar, Santa Anita and Keeneland all went back to dirt.

They did so for myriad reasons. Horsemen complained that while the synthetic tracks may have cut down on catastrophic injuries, they were responsible for a spike in other injuries. Though there's no evidence that handle numbers fell when synthetics went in, gamblers loved to gripe about them. Farms that had invested millions in sires who did their best work producing dirt horses were understandably upset that many top races had been switched away from dirt surfaces. And some of the synthetic tracks seemed to produce more problems than they solved. In 2008, the Cushion Track synthetic surface at Santa Anita was draining so poorly that the track had to cancel 11 days of racing. Races like Keeneland's Blue Grass S. suffered because trainers did not want to prep their horses for major dirt races like the GI Kentucky Derby on a different type of racing surface.

Dickinson refuses to make any excuses for the first wave of synthetic tracks.

“No, we didn't give up on synthetics too soon,” he said. “The first time around they weren't good enough. Mine was just good enough at Golden Gate and what we had at Presque Isle was OK. The other tracks weren't good enough, period. You can't blame the trainers for complaining. At Santa Anita, they used the wrong sand. At Del Mar, we knew that it was going to fail before it even went in. They just weren't good enough.”

Though some tracks stuck with their synthetic surfaces, it appeared that American racing had come to the conclusion that dirt was best. That premise is now being reexamined due to the firestorm racing is under from the media and others, who can't seem to let go of the idea that racing is a dangerous sport in which some of its equine competitors die.

Dickinson believes that if anyone digs deep enough they will find that synthetic surfaces, at least Tapeta Footings, have improved dramatically from the time they were first rolled out and that the problems of 10-12 years ago have been fixed.

While many gave up on synthetics, Dickinson gave Wakefield control of Tapeta Footings and said she has done a much better job than he ever could have. The product Tapeta now markets is called Tapeta 10. The “10” is for the 10 improvements Wakefield has made over the original product. Some of Wakefield's innovations have been put in place at Presque Isle Downs, where the fatality rate in 2018 was 0.34 horses per 1,000 starters, making it easily the safest racetrack in the country.

But what Dickinson is most proud of is the safety record at two British racetracks, Wolverhampton and Newcastle, tracks where the state-of-the-art version of Tapeta 10 is in use. According to statistics supplied by Arena Racing Company, which owns both tracks, the rate of fatalities per 1,000 starters at Wolverhampton since 2016 has been 0.07. At Newcastle, the number is 0.08. There has not been a fatality at Newcastle since October. Over that time, there have been 3,096 starters. There have been 3,299 starters at Wolverhampton since the last fatalities, in December.

He believes those numbers can de duplicated at American tracks with Tapeta 10, and that it would change the general public's perception about the sport.

“Thirty years ago Formula One drivers were being killed at an alarming rate and the public and the politicians reacted and said you have to change things, and they did,” he said. “It is a much safer sport now. That's what racing is going through now and it absolutely has to make the changes to make the sport as safe as possible. We have no other choice.”

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