A New Day at the Races

Golden Gate Fields' new synthetic racetrack may make the sport safer. But it certainly will be slower.

It’s a sleepy October Saturday at Golden Gate Fields, and the usual collection of horses and horsemen are working out on the main track, many cheerfully off-task. Sprinters bounce around like jumpers. Distance horses joyfully lope in the wrong direction. Old men and young women trade casual bilingual insults, while emaciated jockeys and fat trainers stand side by side conducting negotiations that end the moment you get within a furlong of them. Looking up, the sights and sounds of this Albany racetrack must be pretty much as they were back when it first opened in 1941. It’s when you look down that you see something new.

The track itself has been transformed. The owners of Golden Gate Fields are betting $9 million that their latest and most dramatic renovation will save horses’ lives, increase the number of them racing, and boost their sport’s image and appeal. They are counting on a payoff measurable in increased patronage, bigger purses, and a place in sports consciousness beyond Derby Day. But if they’re wrong, then perhaps Bay Area racing is headed down the homestretch.

General Manager Robert Hartman is standing by the big window with a view that begins at the track and extends all the way to the Berkeley hills. He and communication director Sam Spear are extolling the virtues of their new synthetic track surface, which is being prepared for November racing. They’re following the action down at ground level — where the ground is no longer level. It slopes gently to the rail, which separates the new track from the smaller grass track inside it. Drainage pipes are being buried below ground, covered by layers of rock, porous asphalt, and finally, the surface itself, a wax-coated mixture of sand, rubber, and hard plastic fibers.

Tapeta, pronounced Ta-PEET-ah, is one of a series of synthetic surfaces being trotted out by tracks across the country. “It is like the artificial turf … at Cal’s Memorial Stadium; it reduces the impact of pressure on the stride,” Hartman explains. “It’s the right thing to do. The new track will save lives.”

Hartman’s industry hopes that new surfaces such as Tapeta — and others with names like Polytrack and Cushion Track — will limit the number of catastrophic injuries and the gruesome spectacle of on-site breakdowns and death. Several high-profile calamities have hurt horse racing’s image while destroying some of the sport’s top performers. Most recently, the 2006 Kentucky Derby champion, Barbaro, broke his right leg in front of a large TV audience while trying to take the Preakness stakes. As Barbaro convalesced painfully and unsuccessfully, the coverage of his battle overwhelmed the news of horse racing’s Super Bowl, the Breeder’s Cup. The Cup itself has been plagued by on-track fatalities. Even racing’s last big crowd pleaser, the Seabiscuit saga, resurrected other tales from the sport’s past, not all of them happy. Consider the story of Ruffian, a top filly from the 1970s, who never trailed a race in her career until a misstep at New York’s Belmont Park ended with her euthanized on the backstretch.

Something needed to be done for the sport, Spear says, both for practical reasons and for public relations. “Breakdowns at the track, when the public is only tuned in once or twice a year, [are] the kind of exposure no sport could endure,” he says. Spear, the longtime host of televised Bay Area race reviews on Channel 26, is “cautiously optimistic” that Tapeta will make the difference. And he and Hartman believe that a safer racing surface will pay all sorts of other dividends.

In February of 2006, after a slew of high-profile track fatalities and the usual loss of racing dates due to inclement weather, the California Horse Racing Board pushed into law a mandate that all racetracks running for more than three weeks convert to synthetic turf by January 1, 2008. All California tracks except those at county fairgrounds — where racing, like the Tilt-a-Whirl, typically lingers for a few weeks before moving to the next town — would convert or close. The cost to the Magna Corporation, the owners of Golden Gate Fields, will be nearly $10 million. Yet, this requirement may have done the track’s owners a favor, by driving a final nail in the coffin of their San Mateo counterpart Bay Meadows, already slated for closure due to its alluring real estate potential.

This summer, the 73-year-old Peninsula facility was granted a brief stay of execution based on questions about whether the new track at Golden Gate Fields would be ready in time for the November 7 racing season. Bay Meadows now gets to stay open until next November before ending its season for good. But by this time next year, when Golden Gate is ready to reopen, it could feature up to 100 more days of racing each year, and be the only major track within 400 miles.

At that point, Golden Gate Fields will stand alone, and if horse racing lives or dies in the Bay Area, its future will be fought out a horseshoe toss away from the Albany Bulb. If track officials have made the right bet, horses at Golden Gate Fields will run more safely and more will run in each race. Bigger fields should bring in bigger crowds and more people wagering more money.

But it’s not at all clear that there’s a clamor for more racing. Attendance numbers have mysteriously dropped from the daily sports pages, and it doesn’t take a census taker to see that there’s an awful lot of good seating available every day. And while racing is steeped in tradition, what does it mean that the very surface horses run upon has now been changed? As California tracks usher in this new era, it won’t be a cliché when they say “throw out the record book” and are forced to retire old racing records. The names of horses such as Swaps, Nassau, and Silky Sullivan won’t disappear from the memories of long-time fans, but comparing their era to the present may be impossible.

Finally, because Tapeta is designed for a climate like our own, track officials say that races won’t be canceled or wildly affected by winter’s wicked downpours. But the new surface’s first North American test occurred during an East Coast summer, not a Bay Area winter. And that test called into question the most sincere hope of all for the Tapeta: that it would save the lives of horses.

In short, all the hopes of track officials are riding on their new synthetic surface. Will it succeed? The wise guys say what they always say: Hold all tickets.

The mastermind behind Tapeta is one of the many larger-than-life characters this sport of tiny men routinely produces.

Michael Dickinson boasts that he is a combination of Kentucky Colonel and Colonel Sanders. Born in Yorkshire, England, he started at as a steeplechase rider, became a successful trainer, and moved to the US in the 1980s. His web site trumpets praise for his training style that others might choose to hide: “unconventional and unorthodox — prompting the nickname ‘mad genius.'” Dickinson trained 1996 Breeder’s Cup champion Da Hoss after numerous leg and body injuries kept the colt out of competition for more than two years, virtually a lifetime for the sport. Once Dickinson got him back to full health, he enrolled Da Hoss right back at the highest level, the Breeder’s Cup. When the old campaigner came through just like old times, the track announcer, using the sort of understatement that makes the sport such a delight pronounced, “Oh my, this is the greatest comeback since Lazarus!”

But Dickinson’s most unconventional move was the one from track winner to track builder. In 1998, Tapeta was born at a training facility he had opened in Maryland. Tested in pots around Dickinson’s 200-acre farm, what he called “Michael’s Mistake” eventually became the stuff of dreams. After he opened training facilities in Singapore, Great Britain, and the United Arab Emirates, Dickinson’s trademarked turf was off and running.

After several years of trial and error — and many dollars — Dickinson patented his seven-ingredient surface, which consists of 53 percent sand, 5 percent rubber, and 42 percent “secret recipe.” His web site elaborates for five paragraphs on the wonders of Tapeta, stating that it is “unlike anything anyone has ever seen” and “has a spring and a give to it that helps strengthen horses’ muscles in different ways.” The blurbs combine the scientific, “Dirt contact time = .0070 seconds vs. Tapeta = .0177 seconds,” with the anecdotal, “Fantastic. It is like running on living room rug.” Most of the literature on Tapeta speaks of its ability to withstand stormy weather, though a wise guy on a Del Mar web site noted, “I wouldn’t think that was a problem in Dubai.”

The first weather-related test of Golden Gate Fields’ Tapeta came earlier than expected. Two October rains soaked the track during its training session. Bill Delia, a former jockey turned trainer, said the track held up beautifully. “I worked two young horses and one older one; they all handled it real well,” he said. Trainer Steven Speck agreed. “It’s no joke when the horses come back from workouts covered in mud,” he said. “You have to clean them thoroughly, keep them from catching cold. They came out of here dry and clean.”

Watching an on-rushing horse is notable for what you don’t see. There is almost no soil dislodged by the thundering hooves; a puff of dust rather than a cloud of dirt. Jockey Russell Baze, the all-time winning rider in the history of the sport, is upbeat about its prospects. “So far, so good,” he said. “The best thing is that the track’s been so consistent. It’s providing a real nice cushion for the horse and it’s been kind to their legs. It’s only been a few weeks, and we haven’t started running hard on it yet, but to this point it’s been terrific.”

Speck says part of the praise being given to the new track is in reaction to the degraded condition of the old dirt at Golden Gate Fields. “The last few years here, they could have done a lot if they had just done proper maintenance on the old track,” he said. “They didn’t, maybe knowing that this new surface was going in.” Delia agrees: “The old Golden Gate Fields was just kind of used up. This might just be the ticket.”

The old track didn’t go to waste, though; it went right down the road. Hartman said, “We’re sending 8,000 cubic yards of it to the Bay Shore, they’re going to use it for softball and soccer fields.” And he said the new track’s environmental benefits will pay off right away. “We’re going to save 20 million gallons of water that used to be needed to ‘seal’ the old dirt surface.”

The new surface was selected partly for its ability to stand up to more racing. Taking up the slack from Bay Meadows means that Golden Gate Fields will need to withstand more than twice the number of hoof beats it’s ever had in a year. Hartman says Tapeta will make all the difference. “We will never have an off track again,” he said, referring to days when weather downgraded the dirt’s rating. “The surface we’ve chosen is just the right blend for the Bay Area climate.” Southern California’s Hollywood Park and Santa Anita chose Cushion track and San Diego’s Del Mar went with Polytrack, synthetics better able to deal with triple-digit temperatures. On the other hand, Tapeta, Latin for “carpet,” was designed to soak up precipitation and not bog down in a wetter, cooler clime.

Tapeta also may enable Golden Gate Fields to hold larger races. For years, it and Bay Meadows have been ripped by criticism of running “short fields.” A four-horse race, not uncommon in the last decade, reduces the number of betting options and limits payoffs when the pari-mutuel bank holds less revenue. On that point, track operators across the state agree.

“Fewer nagging injuries means that horses will come back to race more regularly,” Hartman said. “That leads to bigger fields, and that will result in more satisfied bettors.” The results from Santa Anita’s first season with Cushion Track suggest that Hartman may be right. “We are very, very happy,” said track director of publicity Mike Willman. “We have bigger fields by far, over nine horses a race on average. We’re keeping more horses in action, and they’re getting back to the track more regularly.”

Calvin Rainey, the assistant general manager of Golden Gate Fields, explains how it all pays off. “If you have a bigger field, you’re going to have more betting interest. The more options there are to bet, you get more bettors interested in your race.” Bigger fields also bring longer odds, and that creates bigger lines at the betting window. “With bigger payoffs, you’re going to catch the attention of the casual fan.”

Of course, many hard-core fans aren’t anywhere near the racetrack. The remote betting sites across the state and the sports books in Las Vegas are vital to Golden Gate Fields’ revenue stream; and a gambler watching a half-dozen monitors is much more likely to be lured by a full field at Fairplex than an intimate gathering of four horses in the East Bay.

Finally, Tapeta will make it easier to see all the horses. Not only will its grayish color contrast with them, but they probably won’t be moving as quickly.

At the start of Del Mar’s summer meet, horses ran on average more than three seconds slower in races of more than a mile. Other synthetic tracks seem to be slowing the horses down as well. Del Mar’s Polytrack surface had the effect of working as a cushion, absorbing rather than springing the horse’s steps. The effect is so significant that Del Mar and other California tracks have retired their record books, fearful that no horse will be able to equal the speeds set in pre-synthetic days.

If all horses are rendered equally slow, doesn’t that make the impact a wash? Some aren’t so sure. If sprinters are slowed down, horses that wait until the end of a race to make their move may find more favor. That ultimately might affect the traits that owners and horse breeders come to prize. And in the short term, uncertainty will certainly bother some bettors, the industry’s lifeblood and bankroll. Gamblers who’ve spent a lifetime deciphering the hieroglyphics of the Daily Racing Form fear they will need further seasons of study to translate a performance on Cushion Track to one on Tapeta. Frightened investors keep their money in their pockets.

Or at least they say they will.

Alvin and Martha are playing the field at 11 a.m., three weeks before the track below them opens. They’re gambling on five tracks around the country from the comfort of the third deck of Golden Gate Fields. A quiet crowd of about twenty other viewers sit in chairs oriented toward ten monitors, carrying on occasional conversation with one another, without ever turning their heads to look at their partners in colloquy.

Mostly the talk today is about the ones that got away. Or, more specifically, the twos and threes that did. These gamblers keep trying to hit elusive exactas and trifectas, combinations of multi-horse finishes that pay four to five figures, and show up once every few thousand times. “I had 6 and 2,” said Alvin, a graying stocky man wearing an open blue peacoat, and walking bowlegged in new blue jeans. His complaints aren’t so much answered as topped: “I had the 6, 2, and 5,” cried out a guy who wasn’t expecting any sort of answer at all. Martha, a graying but vivacious woman in a maroon sweat suit, sat at the same table as Alvin, and interacted more than all the other punters in attendance. She wailed “Where’s Keenland?” when the monitor switched from that Kentucky track to Santa Anita’s feed instead.

Someone notes, not quite correctly, that Keenland uses the same synthetic surface that Golden Gate Fields is putting in. “More horses have died there this season than they did before they put in Polytrack,” Martha says authoritatively. In fact, Keenland suffered only one catastrophic injury in its first two meets, but then had three horses fracture the same sesamoid bone in their front legs in one week in early October.

But mostly, the talk around this table has to do with what the new surface will mean to handicapping. Nobody knows for sure, although everybody has an opinion. Also, everyone here refers to the synthetic turf as Polytrack, even though that’s a competing brand. The bettors say that betting on the new surface means figuring out the new bias. Well-informed gamblers pride themselves about knowing the differences between dirt runners on fast, slow, sloppy, muddy, and frozen tracks. They know the subtleties of turf, be it firm, fast, or yielding. Now they’ll tangle with Tapeta tracks, CushionTracks, Polytracks, and a handful of other synthetic courses, each of which will take years to yield its own idiosyncracies. Abbott and Costello got a lot of mileage out of whether the father was a “mudder,” but it’s unlikely that handicappers are chuckling about whether a gelding is good on a gummy surface. San Diego’s Del Mar was torched by touts and bettors for the way its Polytrack slowed down speedy horses and created winners out of perennial also-rans. A ten-page screed posted on the web and titled “Del Mar, the Polytrack and You” is a single-spaced shout-out about the agonies of watching closers win.

Here at Golden Gate Fields, the off-site gamblers say they’re worried that their years of research will suddenly mean nothing. Not that there appear to be many scientifically derived selections here today. Alvin doesn’t even use a Daily Racing Form to make his exotic bets, and Martha is simply thrilled to see big odds and chases the longest shots on the board (“That’s going to be a whopper!”). Both say they’ll take a wait-and-see approach to the new surface at Golden Gate Fields, which they actually could see if they only craned their heads a few feet from the bank of televisions in the room.

“Depends on what the track is like that day,” Alvin says. “It will be like when you wake up in the morning. Some mornings you might wake up feeling sore, like me, then other mornings you will wake up feeling beautiful.”

Martha says she’s in no hurry to leap to conclusions. “It’s possible that it will change everything,” she says. “What will happen when it rains? What will happen if it’s dry all winter? I’m going to hang on to my money for the beginning of the season. It might be expensive to find out what way the track’s running.”

Alvin snaps into a moment of sad lucidity and concludes, “The only one that makes any money is the guy that owns the racetrack,” he says, holding a small stack of tickets. “We bet all the time, and we just lose money.”

For the few pony players who make a living at taking Alvin and Martha’s money, the new track surfaces have been miles of bad road thus far. On a racetrack blog, The Handicapper’s Edge, a frustrated fan cried out: “I have had enough. Average animals taking home trophies in our biggest events, ridiculous results. … Years of learning, I must start from scratch. I shiver just thinking about it — but these rubber/wax/glue/sand/castor oil/banana peel/hair gel surfaces will do severe damage to North American breeding.”

The Sacramento Bee headlined the Del Mar experience “Synthetic horse tracks called safer but slower,” and noted that “second-rater” Student Council stunned champion Lava Man on the Polytrack “in a pedestrian 2:07 1/5 — almost six seconds slower than Lava Man’s previous victory.”

Hartman admits that his new track will create a new set of standards. “I think it will be more like running on turf,” he says. “We’ll probably see more competitive racing.” He believes that speed horses, which sprint to the front, may be most affected. The extra energy they will need to hold the lead may cost them at the end. But, the general manager notes, “That may not be a bad thing.” More horses fighting for the finish may be just what his sport is looking for.

At Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, all this talk of synthetics saving lives has been met with skepticism. Julie Koenig, the track’s vice president in charge of communications, blames injuries on factors that aren’t being legislated. “Horses break down because of how they’re trained, how they’re medicated, and how they’re bred,” she said. Koenig noted that Chicago’s Arlington Park spent $11 million on a Polytrack surface and still had the same number of breakdowns as it had the year before. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep our horses and riders safe; but we haven’t seen studies yet that say, yes, synthetic tracks will make that difference.”

Larry Galuppo is an associate professor and chief of equine surgery at UC Davis, where precisely such studies have been taking place. He believes that while synthetic surfaces may not be a cure-all, they will reduce the injury rate. “There was already a positive result from Del Mar; they had a significant reduction in the number of catastrophic injuries. It’s a more consistent surface and it won’t compact and cause stress fractures. The Tapeta being put in at Golden Gate will provide proper drainage as well, and that should prevent slip and slide breakdowns as well.” Galuppo said that track surfaces are responsible for anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of documented track casualties. “There are a lot of variables left over, of course. Don’t forget that horses are competitors at heart, and they run fast and heat up because they want to win. They put a strain on themselves, no matter what the conditions they run in.”

Those same words might apply to the performance of America’s first Tapeta track. In any case, its experience certainly endorses the adage about holding all your tickets until the race results are in.

Presque Isle is the most unlikely of things — a racetrack opened in the 21st century. It’s also the first US track to install Michael Dickinson’s Tapeta surface. Two decades after horse racing fled north-eastern Pennsylvania following what ESPN’s Randy Moss described as an “uneventful existence,” the boom in casino gambling led to the creation of a new track on the scale of Saratoga or Del Mar. This well-funded “racino” (their term) was able to offer a boatload of money in purses, making it the unlikely home to one of the richest summer meets in racing this past summer. “Erie is a town waiting for something to happen,” noted Moss. Once Presque Isle opened, it didn’t have to wait very long.

The first race was September 1, a $100,000 Inaugural Handicap. Dickinson was there for the very first race. The favored three-year-old filly, Cantrel, was expected to take the prize. She didn’t live to see the finish line. Fracturing the sesamoid bone in her right leg, the horse pulled up, was found to be suffering too seriously for recovery, and euthanized at the track. The Thoroughbred Times reported: “Tapeta Footings inventor Michael Dickinson experienced a nightmare come true on Saturday, when a horse broke down in the first race ever run on the synthetic surface.”

The nightmares just kept coming. On September 15, the Presque Isle Mile featured millionaire horse Super Frolic, returning to racing after a poor performance at stud. The 43rd start of the seven year old’s career was his last, as he too shattered his sesamoid bone and was euthanized after the race.

A blog called Left at the Gate mulled over a theory that trainers were using the Tapeta track as a place to run unsound horses that wouldn’t have been entered in a race on a traditional dirt track: “Some breakdowns on synthetic surfaces could be a result of trainers racing sore horses on them in the hope that they will be magically cured.” Dickinson himself was quoted by the web site Bloodhorse.com as saying, “We’ve seen that. Horses have arrived sore, and trainers remarked after two weeks, the horses are moving much better.” But he warns, “Certain injuries can only be cured by surgery or rest.”

Five days later, the grim trifecta at Presque Isle continued. A three-year-old filly named Risk Assessment was running in a maiden race: a contest pitting non-winners against one another for the chance to move into a higher level of competition. Five-and-one-half lengths in front, the filly won the race, then broke down past the finish line, hurled her jockey to the ground, and was put down on the track. It’s safe to say that the risk assessment at Presque Isle hasn’t yet proven Tapeta’s worth.

Bloggers who followed the racing at Presque Isle reacted with anger. “So that would be the third horse killed at Presque Isle right?” asked one commenter on the blog Foolish Pleasure. “Well, that’s just horse racing, right? What’s a few suffering, dying horses in the name of fun and profit?” But another poster blamed Super Frolic’s owner: “The horse was seven years old and had 43 starts. He deserved to be retired, not put back into training because his owner was not satisfied with the book of mares he attracted.”

Those at Golden Gate Fields who followed the Presque Isle situation acknowledged the tragedy but said they weren’t discouraged about Tapeta. “We’re still going to have breakdowns,” said Rainey, the assistant general manager. “The nature of racing means that horses are going to overextend themselves. We have a lot of confidence in the track surface, and already know that horses come back in better shape than they did on the dirt surface.”

And it isn’t just track employees who feel that way. Trainers and owners who have a lot more at risk say they’re actively looking forward to race season. “This is a rough sport, and horses can hurt themselves in a padded stall, sleeping on a feather bed,” said trainer Speck. “Too many trainers take horses that have preexisting conditions that should keep them off the track, and try to squeeze a little more out of them, by putting them back on when they shouldn’t. You’ll get the horse which has bone chips, or fractures, brought back before they’re ready, and no kind of surface can protect a horse or rider from that.”

Just to be sure, Dickinson himself has been a frequent visitor at Golden Gate this fall. The meet will represent his highest-profile project yet. Erie’s track was open for less than a month; the Albany track has a hundred-day meet scheduled, one that will take it through potentially treacherous rains that caused the cancellation of racing in years past. Dickinson will be here opening day, and plans to check in throughout the meet. Track officials say he’s been testing the soil, checking out the horses, and asking all those on the backstretch what they’re seeing.

Rainey said he is satisfied with the prep work put in. “We’ve brought up all our concerns, and feel that they’ve been addressed,” he said. “There are going to be variances in the track, I’m sure. Will it run differently in the afternoon than in the morning? When the track heats up, I’m sure we’ll see some differences. But what we’ve seen and heard so far has been outstanding, and we’re not going to do anything to put our horses or jockeys at risk.”

People who love “the sport of kings” gather together in ways no longer visible in other American sports. Luxury boxes and suites are nowhere on the program. The folks who’ve paid ten bucks more to sit in the Turf Club seats still rub shoulders with the $2 bettor. The biggest bettors stand in line with the stoopers holding stacks of discarded tickets hoping for the longest shot of all: someone sloppy enough to toss out a winner. The mix of high rollers and the barely ambulatory, combined with a United Nations of languages, makes the track very unlike those casinos where the top tables separate the well-heeled from the hoi polloi.

Still, the pace of racing is oddly pokey. In a world of sports characterized by mid-innings video, cheerleaders dashing onto the court, and advertising crammed into vacant space, for twenty to thirty minutes between horse races, nothing much happens. Which is to say that if Tapeta works like its backers say it will, horse racing may still be obsolete. Nine races over four hours may not be enough to hold the attention span of the new millennium.

Heading down to the rail, Sam Spear overlooks the track he’s been a part of for years. “So much has changed since we were growing up,” he says. “We didn’t wear helmets on bicycles, and when I first came to racing there weren’t nearly the precautions that there are now. The rails used to be made of wood, and would splinter horse and rider.” Spear jokes that the new Tapeta surface will have the horses bounding about as if on trampoline. Then he turns serious. “It’s so much expense to get a horse on the track, and then it’s very expensive to put on races,” he says. “If the new track saves lives, it’s worth every penny. We’re losing Bay Meadows, and lose fans every time a horse breaks down on national TV. If we have more horses running and they’re running healthier, this might be the saving grace for racing for Northern California.”

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