By Bill Finley
Earle Mack is right. This industry, which is mired in a crisis, can no longer afford to ignore the most obvious solution to its problems, which are synthetic tracks.
Mack wrote just that in an Op/Ed that appeared in this publication last week. If you haven't read it yet, please do so now. It is powerful, articulate and well-reasoned and was written by someone whose credentials demand that we respect his opinion. He is a horse owner, a breeder, a former U.S. Ambassador to Finland and a smart and successful businessman who clearly loves this sport and does not want it to be pushed to the edge of extinction. It may be the most important story you will read all year.
“The responsibility lies with horse racing's governing bodies, influential race track directors, and all key stakeholders to rally behind a transition to synthetic tracks,” he wrote. “Their public endorsement and commitment to safer racing conditions would signal the beginning of the transformative change our industry desperately needs.”
The 12 deaths at Churchill Downs have created a dangerous firestorm unlike anything racing has ever encountered. We only thought the problems at Santa Anita in 2019 were bad. That was an ugly story but it was largely a California story that didn't resonate with the national media. This time, we are talking about the most famous track in the country, the GI Kentucky Derby and two deaths on the Derby undercard.
This is a story that has been widely covered by every major media outlet in the country and has led to a public debate: is our sport inhumane?
How do we answer that? The public no longer wants to hear about how loved these horses are by their owners, trainers, and grooms or that they are pampered and get the very best care possible and that they were born to run. What they want is for the deaths to greatly decrease if not stop all together.
To their credit, Churchill Downs, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission have stepped up and announced that changes are being made. Theirs is a genuine and concerted effort to do the right thing and to get to the bottom of what has been going on at Churchill. Moving the remainder of the Churchill meet to Ellis Park was a drastic step. Considering the widespread opinion that there is nothing wrong with the Churchill track surface, you can argue that it was overkill, but shutting Churchill down was a victory in the public relations battle, and that matters. The days when the sport shrugged this off and we were told “it's part of the game” are, thankfully, over.
But it's not enough. This sport must do absolutely everything it can to alleviate the problem. And it's not. And it won't until synthetic tracks replace dirt tracks throughout the sport.
Yes, deaths happen on synthetic surfaces, too. But they are much safer than dirt tracks. According to the Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database, there were 1.44 deaths per 1,000 starters in dirt races in the U.S. in 2022. On synthetic tracks, the number was 0.41. That means a horse is 3 1/2 times more likely to die in a dirt race that in a synthetic surface race. Dirt tracks are the most dangerous tracks we have and yet they remain the sport's core product.
Noting those figures, Mack wrote, “…the stark and troubling statistics demand a shift in thinking. We must abandon old norms and embrace new practices that prioritize the safety and welfare of our noble equine athletes. The benefits of synthetic tracks are not mere conjecture; they are a proven truth.”
Yet synthetic surface races remain a minor part of racing and Keeneland, Santa Anita and Del Mar gave up on them too quickly, going back to dirt after a short period of time when they were in place at all three tracks.
Mack calls on Churchill Downs to lead the way. Not only does this story center around deaths at that track but the company owns the sport's most important asset, the Kentucky Derby. Mack reasons that if Churchill takes the lead and converts to a synthetic surface, that will create the much-needed domino effect. How about we go a few steps further? The three Triple Crown tracks should make a joint announcement that going forward the Derby, the GI Preakness S. and the GI Belmont S. will be contested on synthetic tracks starting next year. The Breeders' Cup should announce that starting with the 2025 Breeders' Cup only racetracks that have synthetic tracks will be considered as host sites.
It is understood that this would cause a huge change in the economics of the breeding industry, which is a powerful and influential component. There are stallions out there that are worth tens of millions of dollars and that is because they produce top quality dirt horses–ones capable of winning races like the Derby and the GI Breeders' Cup Classic. Should that strength be taken away by ending dirt racing, their value could be greatly compromised. That will never be an easy thing for the top stud farms to accept. But they can adjust. It will take time, but a new set of stallions capable of producing horses that win at the highest levels on synthetic tracks and, for that matter, turf courses, will take over.
And the farms, like every other section of the sport, need to look at what the alternative is.
“If we fail to take decisive action, the Triple Crown and horse racing itself may soon be mourned as relics of the past.,” Mack wrote. “Animal rights groups, emboldened by each equine death, are gaining traction in their campaign against horse racing. The calls to ban or severely restrict the sport grow louder with each life lost. We cannot afford to lose this race for the soul and survival of our sport.”
Is the sport sure to continue? For maybe the first time in its proud history, we really don't know the answer. Where will racing be in, say, 25 years? Will it have gone the way of dog racing? It won't if we do the right things now, before it is too late. The sport must become safer and that must happen now. The best way to do that is to end dirt racing.