The first season of Woodbine Racetrack’s new Tapeta surface was completed on Dec. 4 and with it came a growing rumble of concern from some horsepeople about its injury record.
By the end of an unusually hot summer and into the autumn months, complaints centred on a surface that was becoming too hard on the bottom, not enough ‘give’, resulting in what horsepeople believed to be an increase in breakdowns and other injuries such as bowed tendons.
Statistically speaking, the number of on-track fatalities in 2016, during racing and training hours by the Dec. 4 closing were likely going to be less or the same as in previous years when the track was Polytrack, according to the Equine Database maintained by Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG).
However, data on training injuries, collected by veterinarians, was not kept until this year so comparisons are impossible.
“In general, I have had the same rate of injuries as previous years,” said trainer Kevin Attard. “The injuries I’m seeing are similar to Polytrack. There may be a couple more things that I may be noticing with Tapeta that I didn’t see with the Polytrack, but, for the most part, the two are similar.”
But trainer Scott Fairlie, who lost his promising 2-year-old filly Happy Is Lucky to a fractured leg during the running of the South Ocean Stakes in October, has been incensed with the surface since the beginning of the season.
“The new track is absolutely terrible and not safe,” said Fairlie. “The people I speak with are unhappy with the track. There have been more injuries than ever before. Over a few weeks my vet alone (Dr. Ted Coker) treated 17 bowed tendons and I’ve had three myself. I can remember having two in my whole career of 20 years training on dirt. I’ve also had four condylar fractures this year, one on the training track and three on the Tapeta. I can only recall having had one condylar fracture over my entire career on dirt.”
Woodbine installed Tapeta 10 (the latest version), a wax-covered dirt surface formulated by trainer Michael Dickinson, during the winter of 2016 as the Polytrack had come to the end of its shelf life. Horsepeople were asked for their input on whether to go back to dirt or put in Tapeta and the results were divided.
WEG elected to purchase the Tapeta, citing the varying temperature and climate during the 133-day racing season and the growth of field size from the 10 years of Polytrack racing.
“The Tapeta track does change and it’s very different than Polytrack,” said Irwin Driedger, director of thoroughbred surfaces for WEG. “In the spring I thought it was too tight, but horsemen seemed to like it.
I didn’t do much with it in the summer and the hot temperatures made it soft and loose. Now the cold temperatures make it fast, but since we modified it in October, the trainers say they can’t hear them galloping over it.”
The October modifications came as a result of the track becoming too hard and tight in early fall and followed a meeting with horsepeople and Dickinson’s team. “The complaints were all about in the morning training. It was packing down too much,” said Driedger. “We would cultivate it, dig it up, and then pack it down and that would lead it to be too firm. Since our meeting we have attached an apparatus (on the back of the groomers) in order to fluff up the tire tracks and area around them that get packed down.”
Driedger said after those changes were made, he has had horsemen remark that the surface had improved.
Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association president Sue Leslie says horsepeople and Woodbine and Dickinson have been in constant communication about the track throughout the year.
“We know there are concerns and we meet regularly with Woodbine and the Dickinson team,” said Leslie. “As the year progressed, everyone has learned more about Tapeta and that led to the changing of equipment and maintenance.”
Dr. Ted Coker attends to numerous barns at Woodbine and says he believes there has been a “significant increase” of bowed tendons and condylar fractures.
“I haven’t analyzed my records so I am just guessing, but I do have a perception that there is a significant increase (in these injuries). The fractures and bowed tendons are due to hard tracks but more about the track not allowing the foot to move smoothly upon contact. The fractures occur because of twisting and twerking, like if you had skis and bindings and you went one way, they went another. You would break your leg.”
Dr. Coker believes that the bowed tendons are caused by exhaustion, racing over a Tapeta surface that is very tiring.
“It’s very difficult to train a horse at Woodbine now. We have to adjust the way we train horses for the Tapeta.”
Woodbine also offers a dirt training track that some trainers use strictly for the training and only send their horses to the main track to race.
“I don’t train exclusively on (the Tapeta), I break up my training with the dirt training track,” said Attard. “For the most part, horses seem to be transitioning well to the Tapeta and holding their form. There is the odd horse that likes it better than the next, but, for the most part, I think the Polytrack form and Tapeta form have been consistent. Horses haven’t changed that much.”
Attard did admit following the running of the Nearctic Stakes (Grade 2) on Oct. 16, a major turf stakes races won by star gelding Calgary Cat, that the champion horse was not handling the Tapeta this year as well as he handled Polytrack, thus the switch to grass.
“Athletes are prone to injuries and you try to manage as best you can,” said Attard. “I don’t think there is an racetrack that is going to be injury or break down free. It’s par for the course. You just hope for a consistent racing surface where horses are less prone to be injured. Racing in general is moving toward less catastrophic injury rates.”
Fairlie is one of many horsepeople who wanted a dirt track put in rather than Tapeta. Woodbine had a dirt track until 2006.
“Dirt is basically universal among North American tracks. I think there are only five tracks with synthetic, and Santa Anita and Keeneland have even re-installed dirt. It just makes sense when you consider that approximately 70 per cent of the horses in North America are bred for dirt and approximately 20 per cent for turf. I’ve never heard of breeding for synthetic.”
Dirt tracks have come under their own scrutiny in recent years. Saratoga’s boutique, six-week meeting in July had a rash of fatal breakdowns in 2016 that led to the New York Racing Commission launching an investigation into the track surface. In two previous years, Saratoga has 27 fatal breakdowns in total added to the 10 in 2016, a high rate.
In the first week of racing at Del Mar this past summer, four horses broke down in training or racing and major news outlets covered the story.
“Track surface is just one cog on the wheel,’ said Driedger with regards to why horses breakdown or suffer injuries.
A recent study by the University of Melbourne in Australia states that 90 per cent of leg fractures in racehorses could be avoided by “increasing rest periods.”
Ben Lisson of abc.net.au news reported on the study and quoted associate profession Chris Whitton:
“Generally, when they’re fractured it’s an accumulation of damage over time. “That may be a short time or over a long time but it is rarely due to a single step or a single injury.”
Mark Samuel of Sam-Son Farms has had concerns this season with injuries to the barn’s runners.
“We appreciate the investment and the efforts that have been made. Unfortunately the surface has been somewhat problematic in its first year contributing to a significant number of injuries for the horses in our barn and for others. “We have faith that WEG will work hard in the off season to [remedy] this situation for the sake of the industry and equine welfare.”
Building and formulating the perfect racetrack for any location is not realistic
“We are not going to have a perfect track but we all want to have the best track possible,” said Leslie. “The key to making changes is to do it gradually, without rushing into something and making a mistake.”
DID YOU KNOW?
The Ontario Animal Health Network (OAHN) Equine Network is a network of veterinarians who meet quarterly to focus on equine health, disease surveillance and improving the industry. A subgroup of this network has been monitoring racehorse injuries to evaluate trends and improve understanding. A summary report will be available after the information has been analysed. The OAHN Equine Network is one of ten species networks which form the Ontario Animal Health Network, a partnership between the Animal Health Laboratory, University of Guelph and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. To learn more, please go to www.oahn.ca.