If you follow the Kentucky Derby at all this year then you are going to hear a lot about synthetic tracks and the effect they will have on the Derby. It’s a big issue, but not one that is easy to comprehend if you aren’t familiar with the basics. This will help.
Most tracks are made of dirt, or a combination of dirt and sand use to best allow water to drain from the track and to keep the surface as soft as it can be. Synthetic tracks replace that dirt with different combinations of rubber, wax and other materials based upon who makes the track. The tracks drain better and are supposed to provide a more consistent surface – one without as many biases as a dirt track can have. A dirt track can favor horses who run at the front of the pack one day, and those who come behind the next, and it can be hard to predict those biases. The biggest reason that synthetic surfaces are being adopted, though, is that they are supposed to be easier on horses and cause fewer serious or fatal injuries than dirt. Whether they do that or not has been very controversial and inconclusive at this point. Every person involved in racing has a different opinion on the surfaces. They bear little resemblance to dirt, and they have drastically changed the game at the tracks that have shifted from dirt to synthetics.
The synthetic surfaces are legally required in California, so all tracks there have them. That state shows part of the confusion, though – there are many different manufacturers of synthetic tracks, so even though the tracks are all synthetic in California, they are all different. Santa Anita is now on their second type of synthetic track after their first didn’t work as needed.Oustide of California the synthetic tracks are used at major tracks including Keeneland, Arlington, and Woodbine.
The tracks are such an issue because they react very differently than dirt does. Horses that can run well on synthetics won’t necessarily run well on dirt. In many cases, the synthetic surface reacts more like turf than dirt. Horses that have prepped exclusively in California – like Pioneerof The Nile and Chocolate Candy – have never seen dirt before, and they may not take to it. Horses that have the Blue Grass Stakes on a synthetic track will also have their biggest race on a non-dirt surface. The Derby, of course, is on dirt. It’s a whole new complication for handicappers.
Another challenge with the shift to dirt is kickback. When horses run on a dirt track, dirt is kicked back from one horse’s feet into the face of the horses behind them. Some horses react well to this, and others really don’t. Generally, horses get used to it the more they have seen it, but it can be a problem the first time. Kickback is largely eliminated on synthetic tracks. That means that horses running on dirt the first time will be facing kickback for the first time, and it can be an especially large problem in a race with as many horses as the Derby. Yet another unknown.