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A One-Horse Race For Dirt Tracks At Preakness

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Horse racing on the Pimlico Race Track, like most in the United States, is a dirty affair, by definition.
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Horse racing on the Pimlico Race Track, like most in the United States, is a dirty affair, by definition.

Every one of this year's  Triple Crown events — including the Preakness in Maryland this weekend — will be run on dirt tracks. Some members of U.S. horse racing want to end that tradition and lay down potentially safer, though much more expensive, synthetic tracks. With grandstands increasingly empty at Maryland's tracks, critics say track owners are putting profits over safety.

When the bugle heralds the start of the Preakness at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course, thousands of people wearing their Sunday best will be in the grandstands, while college students party away in the infield. Outside of the big race, however, the infield is just track workers and the grandstands are eerily desolate. The only people in attendance are gamblers and some relatives they dragged along.

The allure of synthetics

Like every other stop of the Triple Crown, Pimlico has a dirt track. Critics say dirt is more harmful for horses than the new generation of synthetic race tracks. Former jockey and trainer Michael Dickinson was dubbed the "genius of horse racing" in his native Britain. He now manufactures Tapeta tracks — a hodgepodge of wax, sand, recycled clothes and, of course, some secret materials.

"We want it pliable," explains Dickinson. "We want it obedient. It's an obedient surface. Unlike my wife, my race track will do anything I ask it to do."

The Jockey Club reports nearly fifty percent fewer horse fatalities on synthetic surfaces than on their dirt counterparts. That's part of the reason Dickinson loves showing off his spongy version.

"See how it bounces back? It's got life to it," says Dickinson. "But he's got to have stability from the rear end, so when he pushes it off he doesn't want to be spinning his wheels."

Dickinson's business is expanding in the UK, Australia and the United Arab Emirates. It's even the surface for the Dubai World Cup. But those customers are overseas. Dickinson doesn't manufacture his product in the United States anymore. He says there just isn't a market.

"The only reason not to put a synthetic in is the cost," says Dickinson. "They're about $4 million, so it's a big ticket item."

Muddied cultural explanations

It's not all dollars and cents. Another reason synthetics haven't caught on in the U.S. is cultural. Trainer Larry Murray's horses have raced in the Preakness, and he's not sold on synthetics.

"It's different, it's different for the horses," says Murray. "They have different injuries because of it. And I don't really think it's any safer. I think a well-maintained dirt track is just as good, but I think that's the key is a well maintained dirt track.

Veterinarian Kathleen Anderson says it's true: on dirt tracks you typically get more chipped and broken bones, while on synthetics there are harder to diagnose hind leg injuries. Anderson treats horses at the Fair Hill Training Center in northern Maryland, which boasts a dirt track alongside its synthetic. Comparing injuries from the two tracks, Anderson chooses synthetics.

"Just like artificial turf with football players," says Anderson. "They probably have more stress related injuries than necessarily concussion related injuries, and it's similar with horses."

In the U.S., California took the lead on synthetics; the state's racing commission mandates them. The results are mixed. Santa Anita Park laid a multi-million dollar synthetic course, but has won permission for a return to dirt. Mike Willman, who directs publicity at the park, says their synthetic surface proved troublesome.

"It became readily apparent very early on that we had some very serious drainage problems, and we had a number of cancelations over a two year period," says Willman.

Dirt tracks pulling ahead in the U.S.

The technology is improving rapidly, but the skepticism has hardened and extra cash just isn't there. Graham Motion trained the winner of last year's Kentucky Derby, Animal Kingdom. He's a fan of synthetics, but says the erratic rollout in California and elsewhere sets the technology back indefinitely.

"I'm afraid that we might have already missed the boat with the synthetics," says Motion. "I'm afraid that the way they were introduced to racing in this country, I think, people are so down on them, I'm not sure that they're going to be around very long."

For an industry that itself is on wobbly legs, there just doesn't seem to be much appetite for pricey innovations in America's horse racing industry.

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