Safety of jockeys and horses has been the dominant theme of American racing in 2019.  A rash of breakdowns at Santa Anita, capped off with a fatal injury in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, rightfully put a harsh spotlight on the entire racing enterprise.

No one cause is responsible for fatalities, but hard data point to track surface as a major contributor.  The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database is quite revealing in this regard.

Among racetracks that provided statistics to the Equine Injury Database from 2009 through 2018, the horse fatality rate per thousand starts averaged, over the 10-year period, 1.97 on dirt and 1.47 on turf. 

Five North American racetracks have synthetic surfaces.  Arlington Park in Chicago is one of them, but the track does not make public its fatality statistics.  The other four tracks reported average fatalities per thousand starts from 2009 through 2018 as follows:

Golden Gates Field (Tapeta surface), 1.37
Presque Isle Downs (Tapeta surface), 0.95
Turfway Park (Polytrack surface), 1.2
Woodbine (Polytrack surface from 2009-2015), 1.02
Woodbine (Tapeta surface from 2016-2018), 0.965

Two inferences:  First, Synthetic surfaces reduce horse fatalities, thereby also reducing risk for jockeys.  Second, the Tapeta surface has slightly bested the Polytrack surface in terms of safety.

If American horse racing is to provide a more humane product, replacing dirt tracks with synthetic surfaces is the place to start.  Yet three high-profile racetracks, Del Mar, Keeneland, and Santa Anita, did the reverse: replacing synthetic surfaces with dirt tracks, in spite of the known elevated safety risks. They have done great damage to the industry in which they are leaders.  And prominent tracks like Churchill Downs, Saratoga, and Belmont Park are also at fault in keeping dirt surfaces.

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