“Conventional Dirt” Needs to Go in Horse Racing

This past Saturday, the H. Allen Jerkens Stakes, named after the trainer whose Onion upset Triple Crown winner Secretariat in the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga, and then whose Prove Out shocked Secretariat in the Woodward Stakes at Belmont, both in 1973, was run at The Spa.

Unfortunately, this year's renewal of the event, which was originally named the King's Bishop Stakes (King's Bishop was also trained by Jerkens), was marred by a tragedy involving the race's favorite, New York Thunder, who, apparently headed for an easy victory, broke down with just a sixteenth of a mile remaining in the seven-furlong race, followed by the horse's getting euthanized on the spot.

(New York Thunder's rider, Tyler Gaffalione, was far more fortunate, sustaining only minimal injuries in the spill — and while he took off all of his mounts on Sunday, he is slated to return to action on Wednesday).

There has to be a better way — and it turns out that there is.

In 2007, a new, synthetic racing surface, known as Tapeta, was introduced at two different racetracks — Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pennsylvania, and Golden Gate Fields across the bay from San Francisco (although the latter track will close at the end of this year) — and its use has since spread to other tracks, including Kentucky's Turfway Park and Canada's flagship racetrack, Woodbine. Since 2021, Gulfstream Park has had both a conventional dirt track and a Tapeta track (as well as one of the widest turf courses in North America), and Belmont Park will open a Tapeta track to supplement its gargantuan 1 1/2-mile dirt oval next year.

The major virtue of Tapeta is that its condition is never muddy or sloppy due to the drainpipes found underneath the surface — and its unique mix of silica sand, wax, and other fibers produce a relatively soft, consistent surface (this also means that whenever races need to be taken off the turf because of rain, such races can be switched to the Tapeta — and there will not be a plethora of scratches leading to four or even three-horse fields, as has been the case at Saratoga this summer).

And statistics dating back 15 years conclusively prove that Tapeta is far safer for horses than conventional dirt: Gulfstream, which conducts essentially year-round racing, had only one equine fatality out of 7,085 starters on its Tapeta track in 2022.

Conventional dirt as we know it does not exist "across the pond," where Tapeta tracks are known as "All-Weather" tracks — and an interesting feature of these tracks is that many of them have right-angle chutes, such as Saratoga's recently restored Wilson Mile Chute and its counterpart at James C. Ellis Park in Kentucky, both nine-furlong ovals. But Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom carries the concept one step further, with a seven-furlong right-angle chute on its one-mile track.

The one "negative" associated with Tapeta is that it produces slower times of races than races run on conventional dirt tracks at the same respective distances. But esthetics like that are a small price to pay for Tapeta's obvious advantages.

But of course, the people who run horse racing would rather conduct a crusade against Lasix, which prevents horses from bleeding through the nose (and then getting pulled up, thus failing to finish the race) during races.

Currently, Lasix is banned for use by two-year-olds, and also in all stakes races, regardless of the age of the horse, thus making it extremely difficult for experienced horses to run in races other than claiming races, in which the owners of such horses will lose them for far less than they are worth.

The agenda of these self-declared guardians of morality is to prohibit the use of Lasix altogether by 2026. If that happens, the prices of yearlings and unraced two-year-olds at auctions is guaranteed to plummet on the same scale as the way the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 89% of its value between September 3, 1929 and July 8, 1932.

Why would anyone in their right mind pay $5 million for a young horse at the sales ring at Keeneland if there was a realistic chance that they would need to enter the horse in a $5,000 claiming race because the horse turned out to be a "bleeder"?

So if Belinda Stronach & Co. feel the need to crusade against something, they should conduct a crusade against dangerous, obsolete conventional dirt surfaces at racetracks.

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