Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Hooves Have It: Will Thoroughbreds Sink or Swim Over the New Surface at Santa Anita?

A horse trains over the hilly Pro-Ride covered training track at Lindsay Park Training Center in Australia. (Photo at

(NOTE TO EMAIL-SUBSCRIBER READERS: This blog post contains two video clips. To watch the videos, you will need to click here and read this post on the blog's web site.)

“Training on dirt, you know exactly where you are going into a race. Synthetics? They all seem to train well over it but they don’t all run well. So, it’s a question mark.” (Trainer Todd Pletcher earlier today)

"Sure, I guess it is good publicity if a horse wearing my shoes wins the Breeders Cup but right now I don't care if my horses win or lose. I just want them to all come home safely. None of us wants to see an injury in the Breeders Cup, or any race, but on Saturday, well, I can't wait until it's over. And they're all home safe and sound." (Horseshoe manufacturer)

If you haven't been following the Breeders Cup, here's the nutshell version (Readers: if you are already up to speed on the Breeders Cup, please skip past this recap): America's biggest race series has expanded to two days this year, culminating in the Breeders Cup Classic, where 2007 Horse of the Year and all-time leading money earner Curlin will face off against the best American horses left standing and some of the best horses that Ireland and England have to offer.

Interest in the Classic was toned down several notches with the defection of Big Brown a few weeks ago, when a training mis-step ripped his heel and sent him to the Breeders Shed instead of the Breeders Cup.

The x factor in the Breeders Cup is that while the championship has been hosted at Santa Anita Racecourse outside Los Angeles, California in the past, this is the first time that it will be raced on an artificial surface. Santa Anita agreed to host the 2008 races years ago and installed an artificial surface last year, but had to rip it up and installed a different one in September of this year. The dark-colored Pro-Ride surface from Australia has not been raced on by most of the horses.

To make matters more interesting, most of the European horses have never raced on anything but grass. (And some Euro runners are entered in the turf races.) Classic entries HenrytheNavigator and Duke of Marmalade are running on a non-grass surface for the first time. The Euro excuse for poor performance over dirt in the past when running in the USA is that the horses hate having dirt kicked in their faces. And Pro Ride claims little to no kickback.

As Todd Pletcher says, horses all seem to train well over artificial tracks but they sometimes run differently than they would on dirt.

This video clip will give you an idea of how the hoof hits the surface; you can also see how dark the material is:

Colonel John and Tiago are two horses in the Classic who have won on an artificial surface; Japan's undefeated Casino Drive shipped in a month ago and ran in an allowance race in order to see how the undefeated colt did on the new track. (He won.)

According to the Pro-Ride web site, the new surface "has minimal kickback, provides greater hoof support and is the most consistent surface available." And, most interesting of all, it does not require watering.

The company estimates that the hoof penetrates 20 mm into the surface. Comments from farriers include that the surface does stick inside the foot, especially along the frog, and that some horses appear to be shedding the back parts of their frogs.

Horses need to adjust to a surface for exactly those kinds of reasons. Many Thoroughbreds have intentionally-thinned soles to create a cupping effect, but if the cup fills with track surface, it can make the horse sore until the horse gets used to it and the sole hardens. If a horse's sole fills with dirt or his frog is sore, he may adjust his stride to land more toe first, or heel first, as need be to avoid pain.

Trainers watch for this type of change in action and will pack the feet or poultice them or work with the horseshoer to adjust or change the shoes. Some horses in California now train over the artificial surfaces without shoes while trainers try to figure out what the best foot solution is for an individual horses.

Trainer Bobby Frankel is quoted in the New York Daily News yesterday as one who is having troubles with his horses' feet. He blames it on the heat: "When it's 90 degrees out, the (synthetic) track surface heats up to 160 degrees."

And many horses just take the changes in stride!

Here's a video clip, courtesy of Horse Racing TV, of Curlin in a public work last week at Santa Anita. I know this is pretty boring, but watch behind him as he gallops. There is very little, if any, displacement. Also notice how deeply (or not) his feet penetrate the surface.

John Sherreffs, trainer of Tiago, said on September 25: "I've looked at the course a couple of times, but the one thing I like about any racetrack is the ability of the horse to get a hold of it and get a little rotation of the foot into the track. Some of the synthetic tracks, they just stop the foot from going into the track at all so that...they don't slide. So, there's a little jarring and, personally, I don't like that for racehorses. I prefer that they get a little hold." (NTRA quote)

Other factors affecting the championship are that the temperature continues to be in the 90s, which is very hot for the Europeans, and which may affect the track, which is not supposed to need watering...but watering has been done during this hot spell. There are also wildfires in the hills around Arcadia, which could affect air quality on some level.

Trainer D. Wayne Lucas is one who avoids racing his horses on the artificial tracks. His quote: "I'm on all dirt tracks. I gear our program to that."

Four horses have broken down since the Oak Tree meet opened on September 20th, according to the Daily Racing Form.

Hoofprints in a Pro-Ride racing surface show distinct impressions; the manufacturer claims that the hoof sinks 20 mm into the surface. General observations about artificial surfaces are that the hoof slides less. (Pro-Ride photo)

© 2008 Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing.

Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is a between-issues news service for subscribers to Hoofcare and Lameness Journal. This blog may be read online or received via a daily email through an automated delivery service. This post was originally published on Thursday, October 23, 2008 at

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