Letter To The Editor: Why Calls For Synthetic Racing Surfaces Aren't Hysterical

Amanda Luby | courtesy of Amanda Luby

I have enormous respect for TDN writer Chris McGrath and Wayne Lyster. One's an outstanding journalist and eloquent writer who works for an essential trade publication; and, the other's built a highly-successful breeding operation.

I, nevertheless, must respectfully disagree with their characterization of calls for replacing dirt tracks with synthetic surfaces as “hysterical.” While I cherish racing's dirt traditions (my goodness, Man o' War is my favorite horse of all-time), I'm also mindful of existing data that explicitly show that synthetic racing is the safest surface in the U.S.

Numbers aren't emotional; and that raw data has not been disproven. Just because people speak out in moments of grave concern and sorrow does not negate the validity of such data, nor does it make the call for such change grounded in “uncontrolled, extreme emotion” as the term hysterical is defined. When calls for change are based on raw numbers, it's hardly hysterical or uncontrolled.

Do I think it's fantastic that this year's televised Triple Crown's races (and their undercards) were all successful in the sense that all horses and riders returned safely? Absolutely. Am I thrilled that since HISA's assumed oversight over safety that the rate of catastrophic breakdowns has significantly decreased? You better believe it. Do I think dirt tracks should continue to study the issue and implement all existing measures that make dirt racing safer? Undoubtedly–and they are–which really gives me hope.

On the flip side of that question, though, is how long will racing “study” the issue of what surface is safer? This is an industry that constantly suffers from analysis paralysis simply because many of its “leaders” and major investors are averse to any kind of change, to the detriment of the sport. This is a sport constantly behind the eight ball.

Let's also consider that other televised equestrian sports (i.e., Grand Prix show jumping) have already converted their dirt arenas to synthetic because it's safer. And racing is a much more dangerous sport than show jumping, even when the horses are jumping 1.6m (and everyone who insures a racehorse for mortality has experienced the high cost of premiums as compared to other sport-horses).

Does racing want to be an outlier when we face similar outside pressure campaigns from animal rights extremists who don't believe horses should be used for any sport, particularly when this is a sport always at risk for another horrific breakdown on national television?

These are legitimate questions that U.S. racing must consider.  These are not hysterical questions. These are existential. Heightened awareness of these issues is one of the reasons the industry is making such big moves forward in this very moment. The industry seems to finally be awakened to the fact that making massive changes is desperately needed to ensure racing's social license doesn't evaporate.

If the research that HISA is currently conducting regarding surface safety can show that we can consistently make dirt racing on a national level as safe as, or safer than, synthetic (or even turf) racing, I will gladly change my mind.

Racing's traditions are important; and the dirt racehorse brings a level of power and strength to the breed that has impacted the sport on an international level. Until then, however, the call for synthetic isn't hysterical, it's necessary as we strive to protect not only the life of the horse, but the life of the sport.

–Amanda Luby, Welbourne Stud

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