Following Del Mar's decision to get rid of their polytrack surface in favour of traditional dirt, Keeneland announced yesterday that they were going to go back to traditional dirt by the fall meet. I approve of the switch back, on a conditional basis.
As a horseplayer, I am indifferent to synthetics. I learned how to handicap on Woodbine's polytrack, so it's not a big deal to me. However, as a racing fan who is concerned about the safety of racehorses, I believe that dirt can be a safer surface than synthetic.
My father, who has been training since 1977, has been at Woodbine since 1990 and has first hand experience with polytrack, does not like synthetic surfaces for racing. When I told him that Keeneland was keeping their training track synthetic, he said "It should. Polytrack has it's place, it's just not for racing." Later in the evening I texted my mother, who is the best horseperson I know (and many people who know her would agree with me) to tell her about the news. In our conversation, she said "...when a rider falls, they go thud, instead of bouncing..." "The dirt also breaks away from the hoof where the poly does not. Also there are more shoulder breakdowns on poly." She's right.
In my opinion, the safest racetrack in North America is Assiniboia Downs, a dirt bullring in Winnipeg with bottom level horses. In 2013, there was one breakdown at Assiniboia. In 60 days of racing, one horse broke down. What sets Assiniboia apart from most dirt tracks that have safety issues? Their surface is a deep one. Very deep. The times at Assiniboia are incredibly slow. But what is more important, fast race times or participant safety? Safety, unquestionably.
This is why my support of the switch to dirt is conditional. A deep dirt surface is the safest surface in racing. No one will convince me otherwise. I trust that Keeneland will do all they can to ensure the safest surface possible will be installed. Del Mar I worry about, the southern states tend to have the fast dirt that produces more breakdowns. If the deep surface I am in favour of is installed, I am in complete support of the switch because I believe that it will create a safer racing experience for all participants, equine and human. I would rather see a synthetic surface than a lightning fast dirt track. Safety should always come first, no matter what.