Arlington meet closes, debate continues

Updated: September 21, 2009, 3:16 PM ET
By Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, ILL -- It is Saturday, 93rd card of the meet at Arlington Park. Five racing dates remain until the end of the 2009 season, and trainers are already moving their horses over to Hawthorne Race Course or down to Keeneland in Kentucky. The runners are tired, horsemen more so. This week can't pass quickly enough for members of a community devastated by the tragic events that took place here over the summer.

The Polytrack surface at Arlington Park.
Horsephotos.comThe Polytrack surface at Arlington Park has seen it's share of controversy this year.
More than 40 years had gone by since a rider suffered permanently disabling injuries on the Chicago circuit, all the way back to 1964 when 21-year-old Dennis Keehan was left paraplegic as the result of a spill at Cicero's Sportsman's Park. Then, in less than a four-month window, Arlington lost two riders -- 42-year-old journeyman Rene Doulgas and 23-year-old apprentice Michael Straight -- in serious spills.

Douglas, now recovering at a Florida rehab center from injuries sustained in the May 23 Arlington Matron, underwent seven hours of spinal surgery and still has no feeling in his lower limbs. Straight, hospitalized in Illinois after an Aug. 26 spill, had a flexible rod inserted into his back and also has yet to regain feeling in his legs.

Although both jockeys fell when their mounts clipped heels, there are those who would argue that a lack of "bounce" or cushion on the synthetic Illinois oval may have increased the severity of their injuries. Track management and pundits of Polytrack, the $10 million artificial surface that was installed in 2007, say there's no scientific data behind such talk, that the material is safe and better for riders in a general sense because it reduces catastrophic breakdowns of horses, inherently decreasing the jockeys' risk of injury.

But others at Arlington aren't satisfied. The riders want to know if artificial surfaces are better for human participants on all fronts; the trainers want to know if injuries they're seeing in their runners -- bruised hooves, more soft tissue issues -- are connected to Polytrack or simply a result of typical wear and tear. As has been the case with many questions asked here this season, no one seems to know the answers.

***

Arlington may be a blue collar racetrack, but runners are made here and bright careers are born, and for hundreds of horsemen who make their living on the Illinois circuit, this place is home. The oval run by Churchill Downs Incorporated also provides trainers with their livelihood, and many are understandably reluctant to issue public criticism. Still, the horrific events of the season are cemented in their hearts.

Wayne Catalano has won seven training titles here, dominates the circuit. When he parted ways with leading owner Frank Calabrese at the beginning of the meet this year, everyone was convinced he would fade into oblivion. But people didn't realize that Catalano has training here down to a science, knows how to win. He's saddled 178 starters in the past three months; 46 of them have come in first, 37 second.

Catalano says the surface is fine. Sure, his horses have had one or two issues along the way, little problems with hocks or stifles -- but he gives them an easy week off and they come out of it. The surface isn't a problem, he says. The morale is another story.

Standing out on the apron at Arlington on a tranquil summer day, Catalano talks of 9-11. People were terrified of re-boarding planes. They didn't want to leave their loved ones. The tension, emotions running high, do you remember that feeling? That's how it's been in the wake of the injuries.

That's what several trainers say, declining comment on the record, wanting the option to stable horses here next year, needing their stall applications to be considered and accepted.

"The jocks got a tough job to do, I give them a lot of credit," he remarks. "To fall on any surface, that's never good, that's dangerous. Them boys show a lot of courage, that's for sure."

Catalano doesn't criticize the Polytrack, doesn't criticize the management. He has more than 60 sets of papers in the racing office for runners that have raced here or could race here. Far be it from him to bite the hand that feeds him.

That's what several trainers say, declining comment on the record, wanting the option to stable horses here next year, needing their stall applications to be considered and accepted. But their concern over the unforgiving aspect of the synthetic material -- the concussion, the lack of give -- is practically universal.

"I believe the track is safe," says trainer Anthony Mitchell, who has stabled here since 2000. "But I've had a couple of (exercise) riders come off and the concussion just hits you. People are sustaining serious injuries, and I couldn't blame a rider for riding a little more cautiously."

Mitchell, who keeps about 26 runners between Keeneland and Arlington, launched his career in Great Britain and was familiar with the synthetic tracks there.

"I'm definitely pro-synthetic," he says. "When they put it in here the first year, when it was new, it was spongy, it was good. But what we've got on this track, this year, is dead. Bottom line, something needs to be done with the particular surface that's out there now, it needs to be rejuvenated. And I just hope at the end of the meet that something can be resolved that will not jeopardize Illinois racing next year. That's my hope because I love it here."

***

In reality, the issues at Arlington are industry-wide, extending far beyond problems -- perceived or genuine -- with the surface. It's hard to find a good exercise rider, and horses that carry 117 pounds under jockeys in the afternoon at this track may carry riders weighing 175, 180 in the mornings. While top trainers like Catalano have the luxury of shedrowing a horse for a week due to physical problems, many smaller operations do not. Often, trainers send horses through their regimes in spite of a bobble here, a slight bruise there. It happens on all scales, from stakes contenders to $5,000 claimers, but for cheaper runners, the pressure may be lethal.

"I was on Polytrack the first year it was on the main track at Keeneland and the majority of my horses train over it," Mitchell said. "You have to adjust from training over a dirt track. Horses cannot train over this surface every day and run multiple times without a break, they just can't. But what I tell my owners is, 'At some point your horse is going to go wrong. Hopefully its not too bad and it's right at the end of their career, but don't think for one minute that you're an exception to the whole bunch.'"

***

"It was like hitting cement. With dirt or sand, there's a little bit of give or slide. With this, there's nothing.

-- Veteran jockey Jerry La Sala
For Jerry La Sala, the subjects of synthetic surfaces and rider injuries hit brutally close to home. His wife Nancy is executive director of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys' Fund, an industry non-profit designed to provide support and monthly income to the 60 disabled riders in North America. La Sala hears their heart-wrenching stories -- occupations lost, lives forever changed -- every night after he makes the 15-minute drive home from Arlington, the track he's ridden and prospered at for more than 28 seasons.

La Salla is a battle-scarred veteran, 49 years old, still strong, still energetic, still loves to ride and compete. He's a representative and treasurer for the Jockeys' Guild, heavily involved in PDJF fundraisers and activities. But sometimes he has to ask himself what am I doing? Why am I doing this?

One day he left the gate on a runner, only to have the horse prop about 40 yards away. He was thrown to the ground. The impact was like nothing he'd ever felt.

"Let me tell you something," he says. "It was like hitting cement. With dirt or sand, there's a little bit of give or slide. With this, there's nothing."

Sitting in the jockeys' quarters at Arlington before the first race of the day, La Sala speaks for the colony. The riders aren't scared to ride, they're scared to fall. They don't want to be the next Douglas, next Straight. It's a catch-22, because on-edge riders may be more cautious, sure, but in a game where split-seconds determine the outcomes, such hesitation can be lethal. Any jock will tell you if you're riding scared, you shouldn't be riding. But how could you not keep in mind what happened here this season? "That's all they talk about," La Sala says. "If they fall on it, are they gonna be the next one? You'll hear them say I can't wait 'till this meet is over, I can't wait 'till this meet is over. We can't wait to get out of here, and you never want to say that, because this is one of the best tracks, nicest places to ride. But it's been a long year, after what happened."

La Sala isn't not saying Douglas and Straight wouldn't have been as severely injured if they'd landed on a dirt track; that's pointless speculation. But he is saying that more testing about the concussion, the give upon impact, should be done. He believes the managers at Arlington want to do the right thing. He only worries that no one knows what the right thing is.

"I don't want to see trouble between the riders and Arlington, and I know overall they went out and tried to put this track in for the safety of the horses and to prevent catastrophic injuries, so it's tough," he says. "I wish we had the answer. I don't feel like anyone has the answer. We're hoping they can figure out something to do or do something different; we're hoping."

***

This is how track president Roy Arnold views it: synthetic surfaces are still the answer, the way to go. He's felt this way since 2006, when an alarming cluster of breakdowns focused attention on the oval's old dirt track. That year, 22 horses were euthanized after injures -- a number that turned out to be statistically in line with previous seasons -- but a national outcry over catastrophically injured racehorses pushed track management to make a change.

We're not going to be dissuaded, we're not going to be intimidated, and we are not going to go backwards.

-- Arlington Park President Roy Arnold
"By the end of the season there were a lot of people who seized on it as a sensational negative story and were essentially making the statement that racing should be killed, stop it," says Arnold. "So when we got through the end of the season, we said let's look and see what our options are, we don't want to have to go through this again."

One month into his management tenure, Arnold joined a mass of track managers -- those at Keeneland and Turfway in Kentucky, California's Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar, Canada's Woodbine, and others -- in considering the synthetic surfaces that had been in use in Great Britain for several years. His team settled on Polytrack, a blend of wax, sand, and polymer fibers that mirrored Keeneland's composition. In the first year of racing on the new surface, only 14 runners broke down during racing hours. In 2008 those numbers dipped even further, to 12. And only 15 breakdowns have occurred here thus far this year, a statistic below average for the old dirt track.

"It was not acceptable to have horses dying on racetracks at the statistical rate at which they were," Arnold says. "The industry had a responsibility to address that. It is also clear that the major exposure of jockeys to the risk of death or serous injury is caused by the catastrophic breakdown of horses. So not only did we have an unacceptable situation to equine athletes, but inherently we had an existing level of exposure of serious risk to the human athletes."

Granted, synthetic surfaces are still in the experimental stage, and track maintenance crews learn how to deal with variances in their particular materials  caused by weather, moisture factors, and wear-and-tear on the various tracks  as they go. Arnold recognizes that fact.

"This is not a matter of going out and saying we have a problem, give us one of those off the shelf and we're done," he says. "We've always said this is about continuous, incremental improvement in the sport -- that we have to take a methodical, scientific approach to removing variation."

From a weather station that generates automatic information recorded into a database to temperature sensors on the surface and at depth in the material, Arlington is working to collect detailed information on its' oval. Every maintenance procedure is recorded. Performance data is analyzed. Samples of the surface are taken away for analysis, then experts search for deterioration or change in the track.

"Slowly but surely, we're building up a database which is allowing us to start associating performance with certain characteristics of the material," Arnold says.

As with any racing surface -- artificial or dirt -- horsemen are seeking both optimum load factors and optimum sheer. You don't want a track too deep, so soft that the horses have trouble getting around the track, but you don't want a low sheer with no resistance, because that's dangerous, slippery, ineffective. Track maintenance crews work to develop a sweet spot, a perfect meeting of load and sheer, the surface that, without bias, sends the best runners gliding safely to victory.

While the meet winds down at Arlington, the fact that two riders will not be coming back next season hits home. But those who run the track believe that perfect surface may still be obtained with the materials they have before them. And for everyone else, the only thing to do until next year is simply wait and see.

"We think we're going in the right direction, and we're committed to that," Arnold says.

"We're not going to be dissuaded, we're not going to be intimidated, and we are not going to go backwards."

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.

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