Astroturf for Horses

New track technology is rocking the tradition-bound world of horse racing.

The foundation of American horse racing is changing–literally. Long past its 1940s heyday, the sport is finally addressing a huge but little-known problem exposed by Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro’s horrific injury in the Preakness Stakes in May: career-ending–and usually life-ending–leg breaks. Almost two racehorses die each day while racing in the United States and Canada. Now a slew of English entrepreneurs are betting that synthetic racing surfaces can revitalize the game from the ground up. These “all weather” products, four of which are on the market, use the same basic formula: a fluffy mix of silica sand, recycled rubber, and fibers coated in wax.


Inventors have been chasing this prize for decades. There’s Michael Dickinson, for one, the trainer called the “mad genius of horse racing.” He left England, where he enjoyed godlike status, to pursue a Kentucky Derby crown (still waiting). He gives the horses he trains a bottle of Guinness every day. And in 1997, he invented, patented, and installed at his Maryland training center a synthetic surface called Tapeta. “I thought it would take me three months to come up with a good track,” he says. “It took four years.”

Dickinson long suspected that running horses on a softer surface could limit serious injuries. Recent scientific and anecdotal evidence seems to prove him right. George Pratt, an MIT professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer science, studied Tapeta at Dickinson’s request. His findings: Racing on Tapeta is like “running on a living room rug,” where horses’ legs experience only half the impact pressure they do on dirt. And when Kentucky’s Turfway Park installed the synthetic Polytrack for its 2005–2006 racing season–the first North American track to install one of these alternative surfaces–only 3 horses suffered major injuries, compared with 24 the year before.

Now the race is on to win over other tracks. Kentucky’s Keeneland track is not only installing Polytrack, but it has become the surface’s North American distributor. The California Racing Board ruled earlier this year that its five major tracks (including Santa Anita Park) must install synthetic surfaces by 2008.

But some horsemen think this rush to synthetics is a false start. “They don’t really know what’s going to happen,” says Butch Lehr, vice president and track superintendent at Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Kentucky. Lehr’s got a good memory; in the 1980s, two racetracks installed artificial surfaces only to replace them with dirt. In one case, the track melted. Trainers like Todd Pletcher, who won horse racing’s highest honor in 2004 and 2005, are similarly cautious. Synthetics could fracture horse racing, he says: “I think you could see a situation where you’re going to have dirt horses, turf horses, and synthetic horses.” That, predictably, scares handicappers, the sport’s best fans. “People in racing aren’t fully prepared for the nature of the changes,” says Andrew Beyer, the retired Washington Post horse-racing columnist.

Traditionalists don’t worry the synthetic advocates, but the lack of progress does irritate them. “Basically we can’t go any freaking slower. We haven’t changed in a hundred years,” grumbles Dickinson. “If we go any slower, we’ll be going in reverse gear.”