Racing injuries and racing surfaces appear to be linked - wave3.com-Louisville News, Weather & Sports

Racing injuries and racing surfaces appear to be linked

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A horse being prepared for surgery by Dr. Larry Bramlage at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital. A horse being prepared for surgery by Dr. Larry Bramlage at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital.
Dr. Larry Bramlage Dr. Larry Bramlage
Dr. Alan Ruggles Dr. Alan Ruggles
Rogers Beasley Rogers Beasley
The Polytrack surface at Keeneland being groomed. The Polytrack surface at Keeneland being groomed.

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Real verses fake. Dirt verses Polytrack. They've been arguing about it for years. At Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, the sport is literally upside down. Horses lie on surgery tables, legs in the air, not on the ground. They wheel one in and wheel one out. There are 12 surgeries scheduled on the day of my visit. Tomorrow's surgeries were outside being evaluated, limping around lame.

"Lameness is simply the horse shifting weight from one leg to another," said Dr. Larry Bramlage.

Lameness, leading to death, is not a mystery anymore. I examined the equine injury database compiled by the Jockey Club. I found a big difference emerging, in fatalities, between dirt tracks and tracks that have installed synthetic racing surfaces.

Dirt tracks like Aqueduct and Delaware Park averaged over three deaths per 1,000 starters. However, on the synthetic surface at Keeneland, they had one death in 1,200 starters. The Polytrack at Turfway Park had one fatality for just under 5,000 starters. That's 0.2 per 1,000 starters.

Overall, at all tracks, all year, synthetic surfaces had half the death rate as dirt tracks. That isn't news to the doctors saving horses.

"They get lesser injuries and fewer jolting steps whenever they're on artificial surfaces," said Dr. Bramlage.

"Studies have shown in synthetic surfaces the acceleration forces, the force the limb is contacting the track, is lower and braking forces are also lower," said Dr. Alan Ruggles. 

Keeneland's synthetic surface, called Polytrack, is made of sand, carpet fiber, and rubber, coated in wax. It's easy to maintain, like rototilling a garden. Injuries are way down, field size is up, betting is up, and attendance is up. Yet, for the second time, Keeneland recently had to dispel rumors that it was going to remove Polytrack, and go back to dirt.

"We love it here but we're not at the end of the journey, continue to research and make it better and better, more akin to dirt, as we go on because some people say it's only for turf horses and we do want it to be more like dirt," said Rogers Beasley, Keeneland Racing vice president.

Horses still get injured on synthetic surface, but it's a different kind of injury. 

"The fractures at the dirt track were more at the top of the bone, verses the injuries on synthetic tracks were more at the back and bottom of the bone," said Dr. Ruggles.

"It's not a natural surface for horses. They sort of dig into it, it's like running on rubber," said Dr. Bramlage.

"These horses are 1,200 pounds, running at 35 miles per hour, ankles smaller than yours or mine and things are going to happen," said Beasley.

To view the Equine Injury Database compiled by the Jockey Club, just click the highlighted link.

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