Researched and Written
by JANE ALLIN
Ground Matters — God’s Dirt versus Man-Made Synthetics
PART 1: THE GREAT SURFACE DEBATE — WEIGHING THE CONTROVERSY
In pursuit of reducing the number of catastrophic breakdowns that occur in Thoroughbred horse racing, the North American induction of synthetic track surfaces has spawned a malevolent discord amongst players in the game, rife with both heated dispute and caustic reproach between those at polar ends of the enduring debate.
What spurred the progressive introduction of synthetic over the time-tested dirt surface was the high visibility of cataclysmic breakdowns most notably that of Barbaro’s in the 2006 Preakness.
Fatal breakdowns in the Sport of Kings and the angst of Barbaro’s demise are regrettably a demonstrated part of the game. More so perhaps as a result of the degree of inbreeding that has occurred over the last few decades and the inherent unsoundness that continues to progressively plague the breed. This coupled with the superfluous and widespread administration of race day and other medications spells a recipe for disaster.
That said, one cannot single out Barbaro as there are many exalted horses (e.g. Ruffian, Go For Wand, George Washington, Pine Island, Eight Belles) that met the same fate just as there are those who race in lower grade stakes who are equally worthy; all fiercely competitive and all dedicating their heart and soul to the humans they service and entertain.
Almost certainly the climax of the surface debate can be attributed to the horrific collapse of Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.
Suffering compound fractures of both front ankles Eight Belles died in agony on the track, a victim of a sport obsessed with greed and apparently without dedicated consideration for the very beings that sustain its life despite the ostensibly good intent of owners and trainers alike.
Two days after Big Brown blazed across the finish line, the snapshot of Eight Belles down on the dirt set off a raging debate that extended far beyond the Kentucky Derby: Is horse racing now facing an image crisis?
- “With the memory of Barbaro still fresh, Eight Belles’ catastrophic breakdown Saturday put increasing focus on a sport already trying to overcome a decline in popularity.
“Her death has raised thorny issues about the whole thoroughbred industry, including track safety, whether fillies should be allowed to run against colts, and whether horses are bred too much for speed and not for soundness.” 
The shocked and dismayed reaction of the public audience bode pessimistically for a sport already burdened with a diminishing fan base and questionable moral code.
Therein lies the question as to the degree to which a track surface contributes to these deadly incidents and how traditional dirt and synthetic surfaces differ in terms of propagating such events.
That said, perhaps it is time to unmask the truth and work toward a munificent clarification to safeguard a most engaging and exhilarating sport. More importantly there is no doubt that the horses who grace us with their splendor are more than deserving of such resolution.
“Controversy is only dreaded by the advocates of error.” ~ Benjamin Rush
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