Artificial Panacea?

Pan•a•ce•a [pànnə sée ə] (plural pan•a•ce•as) noun.  supposed cure-all: a supposed cure for all diseases or problems. 

For as long as I can remember, people in racing have been looking for a panacea for any and all of the problems faced by our industry—a panacea, that is, short of facing up to reality and making the hard, intelligent decisions that would actually solve the problems, rather than mask them.

In the ‘70s, Butazolidin and Lasix (now cleverly disguised by transposing the L and S to produce the anagram Salix) was touted by the veterinary profession as a panacea to cure problems with short fields (and racing careers) by enabling horse to make more starts.  How well did it work?  Well, according to The Jockey Club’s 2006 Fact Book, in 1970 the average number of starts per runner was 10.22; while in 2005, with most racing cards featuring 100% of the runners on Butazolidin and 90-95% on Salix, it was 6.45, the lowest figure on record.  Some improvement!

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In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, off-track betting and simulcasting were touted as panaceas to solve declining attendance and handle at the track.  Well, they have helped handle, but trends in national attendance for horse racing are such that they are no longer published, because they “. . .have become increasingly inconsistent with the expansion of simulcasting and off-track facilities, where attendance may be estimated, duplicated or sometimes not reported at all.”   Trust me, if attendance figures were positive, they would be published.

Now comes the artificial surface, which has been a resounding success at Keeneland and Hollywood in terms of reducing fatal or career-ending injuries and a more moderate success at tracks such as Turfway and Woodbine.  Further, it is scheduled to be installed in time for this year’s meets at Arlington Park and Del Mar.

For the record, these synthetic surfaces have indeed resulted in significantly fewer serious injuries and that’s a very, very good thing, but it could be premature to attribute all the improvement to the track.  The Keeneland fall meet, for instance, is a prime race meet with good stables and good horses, particularly in 2006 when a lot of horses were there to prep for the Breeders’ Cup in Louisville. 

A truer test might be Turfway Park which is now in its second winter with an artificial surface—and with horses of more average abilities and soundness than are to be found at some of the larger tracks. 

As first recognized by major bettors, and shortly thereafter by racing officials, the Turfway surface is somewhat slower than the older surfaces, but, when it gets a little wet or cold, it speeds up substantially—and, with the increased speed, the number of injuries rises.   That has been the experience at Turfway, this winter, where racing writer MaryJean Wall of the Lexington Herald-Leader has reported a substantial increase in injuries, also noting that the times for a mile in December of 2005 were all 1:40 or slower, while in December, 2006, they are as fast as 1:36 and change.

Now, I’m no logician, but, in the face of the Turfway experience, I cannot help but see an affirmation of the correlation between speed and injuries. 

There are always minor problems with anything new, whether it be cars or computers or race tracks, and maintenance crews are scrambling to address the problems and create solutions to them—essentially trying to devise a way to preserve the consistency that the new synthetic surfaces are designed to provide for racing and I’m certain that, in time, they will accomplish that.

In the meantime, however, it would be wise to remember that these surfaces are a tool—a very good tool—to reduce catastrophic injuries, but it is nothing more than a tool, not a panacea. 
 
It is no substitute for horsemanship, for good breeding or for conformation.