Kentucky Derby clings to extensive history on dirt even as synthetics rise

The synthetic surface mutes hoofbeats, which won’t be the case at Churchill Downs.

>LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – The dirt will be flying when 20 horses stampede around the first turn at the Kentucky Derby, and more than 150,000 fans will hear the thundering of hooves down the stretch to the finish line.

That sight and that sound would be gone if Churchill Downs went the way of other tracks in Kentucky, California and Illinois – replacing dirt with a synthetic surface made of wax-coated sand, fibers and recycled rubber.

The synthetic surface mutes hoofbeats – as classic a sound in horse racing as the bugler’s “call to the post” – and limits whatever stuff might fly in the faces of the trailing horses.

From horses to trainers to jockeys to bettors, the debate is vigorous on whether synthetic surfaces are the future of North American racing.

Southern California’s three major tracks – Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar – installed new surfaces under a state mandate. Arlington Park, outside Chicago and owned by Churchill Downs, did too, along with Kentucky’s Keeneland and Turfway Park, and Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita will be the biggest racing event staged on a synthetic track.

But dirt still rules in Louisville, New York and Florida.

“It’s probably premature to determine whether it’s here to stay or not,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “We’re all kind of learning as we go along, and what we’re finding is that there’s a lot that we don’t know about it.”

The new materials are designed to better protect animals and jockeys from catastrophic injuries, a necessity no one disputes. A new on-track injury reporting program seems to indicate the surface is having the desired effect.

Reports by veterinarians at 34 tracks across the country between June 2007 and early this year showed synthetic tracks averaged 1.47 fatalities per 1,000 starts, compared with 2.03 fatalities per 1,000 starts for horses that ran on dirt.

“I’m a big fan of synthetic tracks,” said Eoin Harty, who trains Derby contender Colonel John. “The tracks in California were very unsafe for too long. The proof is in the pudding. The field sizes have swelled and the horses have stayed sounder longer.”

Some of the 20 horses expected to run in Saturday’s 134th Derby have never raced on dirt, notably Colonel John, or have switched between dirt and synthetics with varying results. Pyro, for example, has never run poorly on dirt, but finished 10th in his final Derby prep on Keeneland’s synthetic surface.

“(Synthetic) to dirt, I’ve had some success,” said Steve Asmussen, who trains Pyro. “Dirt to (synthetic), I haven’t had any.”