Monday, September 7, 2009
By Jay Cronley
Special to ESPN.com
Remington Park in Oklahoma City was the first major track in this country to install an artificial racing surface that over time could have wound up on the government's hazardous site list.
This occurred about two decades ago.
Racing over materials has always sounded like a good idea to at least the manufacturers and select track management. Racing over a concoction of rubber and hemp and old boots or whatever else went in there has always sounded high and dry, safe and dry; or, as safe as breathing and running over artificial surfaces turns out to be. One argument made in favor of the use of make-believe racing surfaces has been it worked in Europe. Yeah, well, it doesn't get 111 degree in the shade of paramedics in Europe, does it. Not everything from Europe works in this country, see soccer and Jerry Lewis film fests.
To say that a horse bounced over the Remington Park oval was no descriptive license.
That surface seemed highly rubberized, almost as though old golf driving range mats had been run through a chipper and spread thoroughly over the race course. Whereas no riders or horses came back bug-eyed and clutching their throats and gagging, health concerns, both respiratory and structural, arose. Different racing surfaces use different muscles. And throughout the course of horse racing on product, injuries haven't seemed to occur less frequently, they just show up around different muscles and joints; and breakdowns haven't seemed to have been reduced appreciably.
I remember standing at the rail at Remington Park one afternoon -- as horses that couldn't have stirred up dust on dirt were winning for artificial fun where the rubber met the hoofs -- and thinking: This is no fun. This wasn't handicapping. This was gambling.
So in the early nineties, Remington Park dug up the artificial surface and sent the remains to who knows where, a tire retread factory, or down a hole in remote Nevada, the points being: If it's not provably safe, and if it's not fun, and if the best owners don't want to risk it, let's create some jobs and vacuum up the fuzz and get back to basics.
A few years ago, a great horse crashed through a starting gate, was quickly reloaded, and then broke down after the start. Horse racing found itself caught in a PETA sandwich. It did some things wisely, dumping drugs. But instead of instilling a rule that says any horse blasting through a gate is an automatic scratch, some began plowing up tracks and spreading synthetics. It's no surprise that the red carpet center of the universe, LA, would lead the parade toward cosmetic rejuvenation. But perhaps instead of spinning their hoofs, tracks strapped for action might be better advised to spin bars and cherries on slots.
There are plenty of reasons to dig up what's patented and return to nature.
Mud pays: Much the way the mind-altering August heat in Tulsa drove the PGA major golf tournament toward Canada, so, too, did the eastern monsoons seem to park the Breeder's Cup in LA for two years running. But off tracks are major handicapping elements that tend to produce monstrous payoffs that can occasionally be envisioned.
Health: If artificial tracks aren't safer, on all points, legs to lungs, what's the point?
Competition: Even if it's only a handy excuse for some looking to dodge a challenger, the artificial circuit does seem like a private club of specialty racers.
I can't pick winners on artificial tracks: angles accepted.
It's fake: It's a green world out there. Jockeys are supposed to use towels to clean up, not lint rollers.
Write to Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org.