SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 9, 2017—


Before Day 16 of the annual celebration of Thoroughbred horse racing known as the Saratoga race meet is completed, I wanted to begin the diary by talking numbers.

But instead of referencing the excellent attendance and handle metrics, or how Todd Pletcher is closing gap on main rival Chad Brown, or how Irad Ortiz Jr. is only one win behind younger brother Jose, the numbers that stick out are 14 and 11.

At last year’s Saratoga race meet, 14 horses suffered catastrophic injuries resulting in euthanasia Sadly, in 2017, the number of fatalities current stands at 11 and counting.

The skinny is there’s something demonstrably wrong with main track surface. Everybody knows it but nobody knows at this point how to fix it, at least not while America’s premier race meet is reaching the midway point of its season.

All this as the Alabama, Travers and Woodward horses are waiting in the wings.

Under the condition of anonymity, we spoke with seven horsemen over a period of three days. The stakeholders deal in different disciplines although most, of course, train race horses for a living.

There are numerous theories, many reasonable explanations for why the breakdowns are occurring, but it may be a problem that everyone must to learn to live with until meet’s end on Labor Day. Only time will tell.

The hope is that we don’t see another tragedy, of course. It’s something of a miracle that a jockey hasn’t been seriously injured, although one nearly was during a training accident on the main track last week.

We thought the problem might have been solved when over the last two complete days of racing, August 6 and 7, the track played fairly, not favoring any particular style of running.

On Sunday and Monday, if you had speed, saved ground, and were the best horse, you won. If the pace was hot enough, you could rally down the center of the track as the speed was tiring. Finally, race dynamics were beginning to make sense.

But I recall exclaiming “what the hell?” while watching opening day on television in South Florida—the “And They’re Off at Saratoga” lid-lifter—as the first-race field curled into the lower clubhouse turn, clods were flying every which way, lots of clods.

To me it appeared that the track was playing beyond cuppy. You don’t race a mile and an eighth run on a dead track in a 1:55 and see no positional changes. It was the kind of merry-go-round that went beyond routine speed biases that surface on occasion.

One trainer we spoke with who was schooling two year olds at the gate, walked over to the seven-furlong chute to get a closer look and told me it was “really tough” walking on the main dirt track.

Another horseman said “it’s not like the surface is that deep but it holds you, pulls at you like quicksand. If my shoes weren’t tied tight they would have come off.”

Another stakeholder spoke with two highly respected veteran jockeys who said “the problem is that the track is inconsistent. It’s like the first turn is different than the far turn, the backstretch is different than the front stretch.

“It acts normal, then in different spots horses would just bog down,” the jockeys told the source.

As was first reported in independent racing media by Mark Berner of HorseRaceInsider on August 1, what made this spate of injuries unusual is the number of hind leg injuries. Unlike front leg compression injuries, back legs propel horses forward, supplying the power. But if your stride is compromised by the surface...

While hind end injuries do occur as a matter of course, most horses sustain foreleg injuries. But if horses are having the same difficulty as humans who try to extract their feet from the holding track, this is how accidents happen.

One stakeholder we spoke with Sunday morning recounted a conversation he had with a trainer friend weeks before the meet began. He offered “I know that they added a lot of clay to the track recently, what does that mean?”

“It means broken bones,” the trainer said. Clearly, adding new material was a factor but it’s not that simple. There are plenty of safe clay-based surfaces but they’re not holding ones like this, they are the kind of surfaces that horses skip over.

“I don’t know where the thinking comes from but many people have this idea that deeper surfaces are safer than faster ones? That’s not true, it’s a matter of how they are maintained.”

And when.

“We’re all looking for explanations and there are many theories out there,” said yet another horseman who, like many of his colleagues, have sent their horses over to the Oklahoma training track for morning trials.

Many horses that put in fast final workouts before their first local start raced poorly, the works taking too much out of them, sapping their racing reserves.

“I know [track superintendent] Glen Kozak. He’s a good man, he cares, and he knows what he’s doing. But I know this is keeping him up nights.”

Some horsemen complained that there always seems to be a tight seal on the surface too much of the time. “Tracks have to breathe, they have to be opened up. Dirt tracks are living things; they need water and nutrients to thrive, just like humans do.”

“Let’s face it,” said one. “Some of the best trainers on the world are here and they bring their best horses. Everyone wants to win, it’s so competitive. So when you have 20 to 30 lengths separation from first to last in so many races, something’s wrong.”

As referenced earlier, we thought the problem was close to being solved as we observed the races of August 6 and 7. After the finale on Whitney Day, three tractors came out of the maintenance yard and began to “roll” the track; compact the surface.

Tractor #3 filled with concrete blocks.

The first two tractors were tugging 10 huge drums. We counted as many as 11 wheels stacked across the track that served as rear wheels to support their heavy loads. The third tractor had its bin full of what appeared to be huge, thick, heavy concrete slabs.

From my press box window, I have watched tracks being rolled for nearly a half century and never have seen anything quite like this. They made one circumference, covering 4 or 5 paths wide, then made a second pass that extended nearly to the crown of the track.

Judging from Sunday’s and Monday’s results, the tack appeared to work--until the next catastrophic breakdown. Unfortunately, fixing the problem completely may have to wait until next year. Racetracks, like race horses, need time.

First two tractors toting weighted drums

If there was one theory resembling consensus it was that clay was added too late and there wasn’t enough time to allow the main track to settle.

Two of the seven stakeholders we spoke with said the exact same things in the same way: “You can’t shut a track down for 10 months, open it 10 days before the meet starts and expect things to be normal.

“You have to let the top settle, open it up so that it mixes properly, especially when you’re adding materials like clay that holds water. There wasn’t enough time to allow the clay to mix into the racetrack. Now that we’re three weeks in, maybe the track is settling.”

The fault does not lie at the feet of Kozak. This North Country spring was unusually wet and the clay couldn’t be added until after a horse show was staged on the main track. It’s one thing to be community-minded; it’s another to run a racetrack.

While it may be too late this year, something can be done to improve the main track surface before the 2018 meet.

One horseman said Allen Jerkens once told him the association used to plant winter wheat on the Saratoga main track, making the dirt rich in nutrients prior to the snow blanket of winter.

Also in the day, Hialeah, with a deserved reputation as one of the safest racetracks ever, benefitted from the growing of soybeans during the off season. Remember the rich, brown color of the surface?

The hope is, now that the meeting is nearly halfway home, the track will continue to settle and that the human and equine athletes, and the pocketbooks of bettors, will all benefit from improved conditions.

I-Phone Photos