Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Claire Novack for ESPN and xxxxx for the Chicago Tribune have recently published articles about the polytrack surface at Arlington. As with everything in the sport, it's hard to loosen the truth from its beholden betting interests; anyone asked to comment on how they feel about the surface is dependent, in some way, upon track management. The line that everyone seems to tow, more or less, is that the safest surface for a jockey is one that is safest for the horse. The fact that hitting poly is sort of like hitting cement has been well documented and accepted as the better alternative. The real nuance I found in the Novack article is from Albert Stall who claims that the poly has lost some of its springiness this year. I'd like to know how this happened, and what's being done. The surface has been in England for awhile, and maybe there are similar problems there, but maybe Chicago's frigid winter and blazing summer factors in. So what can Woodbine tell us?

From the Tribune article it was Catalano who explained what he thought was the most unsafe surface and that's a frozen surface that has just begun to thaw, leaving a sheet of ice just below a layer of mush. This happens a lot at Hawthorne, and the caliber of horse is usually lower at Hawthorne (where more breakdowns occur). An abberrant to this pattern is Hawthorne, which has had very few breakdowns, less than Arlington.

This summer, the summer of the false pace, the polytrack has played more slowly. It's in these paceless races, where the jockeys are darting for position at the top of the stretch that the horses are in great danger of clipping heels, or so the theory goes. Does the running style synthetics promote as well as lack of kickback it creates make the horses and riders more prone? It's hard to buy this argument when the incidence of breakdown on turf races, where the running style is similar is much smaller.

Finally, track management is resolute. There is no surface debate for them. The big question: Is there a correlation between the polytrack surface and the staggering injuries, not to one but two jockeys this summer? I don't think there is. With Rene Douglas, his mount was pushed into a slowing speed horse. His horse cartwheeled over top him. The surface had nothing to do with his injuries. For Mike Straight, he hit the track at a terrible angle. It's not as cut and dry with this accident, maybe more give in the surface might have helped. But if you land wrong on your neck, it really doesn't matter if its dirt or synthetic.

Polytrack doesn't seem to pose any increased danger, but it also hasn't shown any enhancement to safety.

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