Are our race tracks really hard?

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

 My research and personal experience shows exactly the opposite that
today’s average thoroughbred track is far “softer” and better maintained
than tracks back 50 or more years ago ever were and that would certainly
also hold true for the natural terrain any horse would go over in the wild
or farm. Just stands to reason when you consider our big tractors and
sophisticated harrows and our cranky modern trainers that are fixated with
not wanting to hear their horses’ pounding hooves over the track as they
pass breezing. All you have to do is look at some of the old antique race
track photos to get an idea how hard those old tracks use to be in the old
days! I might also add that the tracks were maintained back then with the
minimum of water and with a team of horses pulling a simple harrow AND most
of those tracks back then were used for both harness horses and thoroughbred
racing at the same time. Harness horses race on relatively harder tracks and
you can bet that they did not convert the track from one breed to the next
like they do now!

    As any human knows, it is much more tiring to run over a deep surface
than a hard one and this should equally hold true for the equine hoof. True,
a hard surface may be harder on bones and hooves, but I contend, not so
much, if you train your animals over that type of surface from the very
beginning. Bones are remarkable at remodeling and engineering themselves to
cope with what they train over and that includes hard surfaces. Hooves when
protected with plates and daily care can also handle hard surfaces. I might
also add as a trainer that I have had far more problems going from a hard
surface to a softer, sandy surface than I ever had in the reverse. This
scenario will open your horse up to all types of muscular and ligament
stifle/back problems, etc.

    One other point. For those of you that have hung around the backside
when the trackman for what ever reasons allows his track to get harder than
usual, you know that race times in the afternoon or evening always was
reflected with increases. A simple fact: a harder track improves race times
while a deeper track slows them down. That means less effort is needed on
the part of the horse to travel that piece of ground. When this occurs, our
modern trainers will raise bloody hell for a softer track! This happened at
Prairie Meadows a few years ago as it does at many other tracks from time to

    I contend that one reason why more track records were broken in the
first half of the 20th century was because of harder surfaces. Having
interviewed a number of old time horsemen, they never seem to recall that
their horses were any more likely to break down back then than our modern
horses are now. Scanning through past period literature, one never reads
much about breakdowns or the public’s concern at breakdowns like we do now
in the news. Perhaps the sports writers of long ago had different
sensitivities, but I doubt it. A breakdown is a breakdown, past or present.
If a horse was prepped over a hard surface from beginning to end, you will
see no more bone problems than you would today with the majority of
racehorses running over softer surfaces. Perhaps even less!

    There is more to the surface of our dirt tracks than a hardness or
softness factor! Dirt often breaks away more easily which is definitely a
negative factor and shod or unshod hooves will react the same. Many dirt
tracks are not as smooth as you may think, too. You get the factor of the
horse’s hooves not landing level. Harrows produce ridges, previous horse
traffic produces all types of unevenness.  Both shod and unshod hooves would
land unevenly on such surfaces. I remember a number of times of taking my
horses to the paddock from the barn area and having to get there by going on
the main track. AKSARBEN and Hawthorne were two such tracks which required
that. Even though I galloped my own and my horses seem to travel ok over the
surface, I was always amazed how uneven and rough and difficult it was for a
human to walk over the average dirt track’s surface. Of course, had we done
this same walk over a smoother hard turf course, there would have been no
comparison to the less effort involved in just walking over these two. Speed
and deep going kills, shod or unshod.

     Below is an an old photo showing three teams of horses pulling harrows conditioning a track before mechanization. Do you really think this produced a softer track with more cushion than our sophisticated equipment would today? If you do, let me sell you a sterling silver horseshoe.  You can bet that the characteristically harder surfaces of these long ago tracks were one reason why more racehorse records were broken on a more consistent time frame than they ever are now.  This may also be one reason why there were probably less break-downs, too, in the long ago past even though this cannot be proven.  A harder surface takes less energy to travel over! The key is to prep your animal from the very start on hard surfaces. The harness horse people do it all the time, and they don’t nearly have the incidents of break-downs as we do.  

How they conditioned a track beforem mechanization. Really think it was softer than today?

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