Ground matters: God’s Dirt versus Man-Made Synthetic


A horse gallops on the artificial surface at Del Mar racecourse.
A horse gallops on the artificial surface at Del Mar racecourse.

In pursuit of reducing the number of catastrophic breakdowns that occur in Thoroughbred horse racing, the North American induction of synthetic track surfaces has spawned a malevolent discord amongst players in the game, rife with both heated dispute and caustic reproach between those at polar ends of the enduring debate.

What spurred the progressive introduction of synthetic over the time-tested dirt surface was the high visibility of cataclysmic breakdowns most notably that of Barbaro’s in the 2006 Preakness; the shocked and dismayed reaction of the public audience bode pessimistically for a sport already burdened with a diminishing fan base and questionable moral code.

Fatal breakdowns in the Sport of Kings and the angst of Barbaro’s demise are regrettably a demonstrated part of the game. More so perhaps as a result of the degree of inbreeding that has occurred over the last few decades and the inherent unsoundness that continues to progressively plague the breed. This coupled with the superfluous and widespread administration of race day and other medications spells a recipe for disaster.

That said, one cannot single out Barbaro as there are many exalted horses (e.g. Ruffian, Go For Wand, George Washington, Pine Island, Eight Belles) that met the same fate just as there are those who race in lower grade stakes who are equally worthy; all fiercely competitive and all dedicating their heart and soul to the humans they service and entertain.

Almost certainly the climax of the surface debate can be attributed to the horrific collapse of Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

Suffering compound fractures of both front ankles Eight Belles died in agony on the track, a victim of a sport obsessed with greed and apparently without dedicated consideration for the very beings that sustain its life despite the ostensibly good intent of owners and trainers alike.

Eight Belles dies in the dirt at Churchill Downs after finishing 2nd in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.
Eight Belles dies in the dirt at Churchill Downs after finishing 2nd in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

“Two days after Big Brown blazed across the finish line, the snapshot of Eight Belles down on the dirt set off a raging debate that extended far beyond the Kentucky Derby: Is horse racing now facing an image crisis?

“With the memory of Barbaro still fresh, Eight Belles’ catastrophic breakdown Saturday put increasing focus on a sport already trying to overcome a decline in popularity.

“Her death has raised thorny issues about the whole thoroughbred industry, including track safety, whether fillies should be allowed to run against colts, and whether horses are bred too much for speed and not for soundness.” [1]

Therein lies the question as to the degree to which a track surface contributes to these deadly incidents and how traditional dirt and synthetic surfaces differ in terms of propagating such events.

As things will go,

“Controversy is only dreaded by the advocates of error.” ~ Benjamin Rush

That said, perhaps it is time to unmask the truth and work toward a munificent clarification to safeguard a most engaging and exhilarating sport. More importantly there is no doubt that the horses who grace us with their splendor are more than deserving of such resolution. |TH|

Part 1: Weighing the Controversy | Part 2: The North American Switch | Part 3: Synthetics vs Dirt – Pros and Cons | Part 4: Statistics and Safety – The Facts? | Part 5: Opposing Forces | Part 6: Today and Beyond

Researched and Written by JANE ALLIN
© Int’l Fund for Horses

6 thoughts on “Ground matters: God’s Dirt versus Man-Made Synthetic”

  1. This Must be handled very carefully, although there are many changes that are needed, in Horse racing it houses thousands of horses , and horses love to run and truly enjoy the competition , and trust me not all horses owners are greedy bastards, there are many many who love their horses , i know I have been to many barns here in Ohio at thistledown. I have viewed there interactions with their horses in all different circumstances, and was very surprised at what i found, there was more who respected their horses then those that didnt,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, I visit the The Pool where trainers take their horses for therapy, and for muscle development I have talked to many of them there,and all were very concerned for the safety and well being of their horses………….. So we dont want to end Horse racing we want to make as safe for the horses that is humanely possible……………… Horse Racing Will Always be the Sport of Kings, what we need to do is get rid of the riff raff that resides there………………. Always keeping in mind many happy horses have homes there………………………..


  2. Very good article, Jane. And thanks, Vivian, for all the information you provide on “everything horse”.

    Weber Training Stable posted “The potential consequences of starting a horse under saddle too young” (with citations). This is the opening paragraph:

    “Today, more and more, the big money futurities for performance horses are for three-year-olds, so in order to be competitive, these horses MUST be started as two-year-olds, and sometimes even when they are long-yearlings (18-24 months old). Because of this, many of these horses end up with bowed tendons, Navicular Syndrome, bone spavins, bone chips, stifle injuries, blown-out hocks, hairline fractures, arthritis, severe back problems, sprained necks and a myriad of other problems and conditions associated with stress and strain to young, developing bodies. Many horses will end up with debilitating problems at only four or five-years-old and already receiving anti-inflammatory medications and/or painkillers on a daily basis in their feed, or in the form of injections. Some older horses, in their teens, will develop problems that can be traced directly back to being started too young and too hard. It will take 10 or so years for the stresses they experienced when younger to appear as problematic.”

    It also includes: “The Schedule of Growth Plate Conversion to Bone”

    Some contend Throughbreds mature quicker, and set bone faster than other breeds. From what I’ve read, the difference is negligable. Stressing a young horse (of any breed) is unacceptible and, IMO, abusive. Why is it still standard practice in the racing industry? The love of money!


  3. Dear Miss Allin, An excellent report i am hoping it was mailed to all Racing Commissions…… Kudos to you !!!


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