Dispelling the myths about synthetic tracks: a Q&A with Michael Dickinson and Joan Wakefield

Wolverhampton racecourse in England replaced Polytrack with Tapeta in 2014

In my most recent column, I asserted that the racing industry needed to look again at synthetic surfaces. In order to do that, I think we have to review the first five years of the ‘new’ synthetic era - 2005-2010.

In September 2005, Turfway Park, which was 50 percent owned by the Keeneland Association, installed the first synthetic of the ‘new era’. Keeneland had installed Polytrack on its training track in 2004 with a very successful response from its horsemen. Subsequently, Keeneland replaced its dirt track with a new Polytrack surface for its Spring 2006 meeting.

During this time, California was having serious equine breakdowns at many of its five dirt racetracks. 

For example, from January 1, 2004, through 2007, California had an equine fatality rate of 3.09 horses per 1,000 starters. By comparison, since the inception of the Jockey Club Equine Injury Database through 2018, the average equine fatality on dirt tracks was 1.91 fatalities per 1,000. This clearly shows that California had a serious problem.

During the spring of 2006, the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) and its chairman, Richard Shapiro, were holding hearings on improving equine safety on the racetrack. Turfway Park president Robert Elliston testified that equine breakdowns had been reduced by 90 percent since the new Polytrack racing surface was installed the previous September. Shapiro then, during the May 2006 meeting, told the CHRB, “While it is not just racing surfaces causing the problem, it is a contributing factor. I think it is clear, given Turfway’s experience, that California needs to move forward and continue our progress.” 

The board then voted to stipulate that all the major tracks in California had to install synthetic tracks by year end of the following year, 2007. This became known as the California mandate. The decision was well intended, but the unintended consequences would set back the progress of synthetic tracks in the U.S. for more than a decade. They are still affecting the industry today.

Here are some issues that would come into play from the mandate:

  • There were no scientific research stipulations or required standards for the racing surfaces.
  • There was only one U.S. bidder - and at the time they had not completed a racetrack installation. The other two companies were British firms with limited experience. The non-U.S. companies would be seriously challenged to source the proper domestic sand, which is the key component of any new synthetic installation. 
  • The California tracks were required to accomplish the planning, bidding and installation within an 18-month period, which was very ambitious. This was a serious problem as no tracks in the U.S. except Turfway Park had ever installed or worked with a synthetic racing surface. This time frame did not allow for any proper due diligence nor proper testing before the tracks went live.

From September 2005 to November 2007, nine tracks converted from dirt to synthetic surfaces. Here is where those tracks stand today:

Hollywood Park - closed 2011

Del Mar and Keeneland announced in 2014 that they were returning to dirt and shortly both tracks were awarded their first Breeders’ Cup Championships (in 2017 and 2015 respectively). Both since their return to dirt surfaces have a breakdown rate on dirt that averages over 50 percent higher than their prior breakdown rate on their synthetic surfaces.

Santa Anita had a horrendous experience with two separate synthetic vendors, Cushion and Pro-Ride, and returned to dirt in 2010. The breakdown rate on dirt since then has been over three times higher than the prior synthetic rate, which does not include the unfortunate year of 2019.

The tracks below retained their synthetic surfaces, but some have changed vendors.

Turfway Park was Polytrack from 2005 through the current 2020 meet. For the fall 2020 meet, it is converting to a Tapeta surface.

Woodbine was Polytrack from 2006-2015 and converted to Tapeta in 2016.

Presque Isle Downs has remained Tapeta since it opened in 2007

Golden Gate converted to Tapeta from dirt in 2007 and remains with a Tapeta racing surface.

Arlington Park converted to Polytrack in 2007 and remains so.

If one assumes that Keeneland and Del Mar moved back to a dirt surface for business reasons, and keep in mind that Hollywood closed, a strong majority of tracks that either started or converted to synthetics at that time have stayed on synthetics for well over a decade. These tracks represent what I would characterize as small, medium and large tracks, which indicates to me that synthetics can serve the broad range of tracks that exist in the U.S.

The facts are unequivocal and not debatable. 

A well-installed and consistently maintained synthetic racetrack will always be substantially safer than any dirt track you can find. The world has changed, our industry cannot sustain itself at the current levels of equine breakdowns. If the racing industry does not adopt a high priority resulting in a reduction of equine injuries and true transparency by racetracks, then the decision regarding the future of racing will not be left up to the leadership in racing. The future of the industry will be decided by the politicians and the animal rights activists

The other issue that truly stands out is that, by the end of this year, four of these tracks will have Tapeta surfaces. For that reason, I think it is important for the industry to understand what other racetracks have found so attractive.

First, in addition to the four U.S. tracks, I think it is enlightening to see what other international racecourses have Tapeta surfaces as well as the list of international training centers that have with Tapeta.

Non-U.S. Tapeta racecourses:

Newcastle (UK). Trainers from Newmarket are shipping their horses six hours to Newcastle to race on Tapeta.

Wolverhampton (UK). Replaced a Polytrack surface with Tapeta in 2014.

Over the last three years to date, and combined at these two tracks, there have been a total of three fatalities from 11,709 runners for a breakdown rate of .03 percent. The U.S. synthetic rate is far superior to U.S. turf and dirt at 1.21 percent.

Tapeta Park (Tasmania, Australia) a Tapeta surface was installed in 2011.

Training tracks with the Tapeta surface:


  • Godolphin (UK and Dubai)
  • Mark Johnston (UK)
  • James Ewart (UK)
  • Northern Farm (Japan)
  • Seoul (South Korea)
  • Kranji (Singapore)

United States

  • Bridlewood (Florida)
  • Runnymeade (Pennsylvania)
  • Applestone Farm (Pennsylvania)
  • Sagamore Farms (Maryland)
  • Fair Hill (Maryland)
  • Tapeta Farm (Maryland)

One important attribute of Tapeta Footings is that Michael Dickinson and his wife and business partner, Joan Wakefield, did their own research and experimentation and installed the first Tapeta surface on their own Tapeta Farm in 1997. 

It was then ten years before they would install their first commercial track - at Presque Isle Downs. Recently, I had the opportunity to tour the farm, view the various surfaces and speak with both Michael and Joan regarding the history of Tapeta. Here is my discussion with them:    


How and when did you make the decision to start a racing-surface business resulting in your first installation at Presque Isle Downs? 

Joan had been my assistant trainer for almost 20 years and decided she wanted a change. I suggested to her that she start a company producing the Tapeta surface, which I had developed in the 90s before we bought Tapeta Farm.

What was the early thinking behind the decision to begin research on developing a synthetic surface?

On Sunday, June 9, 1973, Vincent O'Brien showed me around Ballydoyle. Vincent invented the first all-weather gallop, and it was easy to see why people sent him their million-dollar yearlings as all his surfaces, turf and all-weather, were magnificent. If I’d seen the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids and Niagara Falls on the same day it could  not have had more effect on this young horseman.  

Vincent taught me the importance of safe surfaces, and it has been my lifelong passion since then. I always knew that, if Tapeta Farm was going to succeed as a training facility, I had to have a better track than anyone else. It took me four years and 53 samples to come up with the first Tapeta.  

What were the biggest challenges that you encountered in the research and development that led to the installation of the surface on Tapeta Farm?

Having come up with my formula, on our first day of mixing we manufactured 300 tons. It looked fine at the time but, by the following day, it was obviously a failure and it was named Michael’s Mistake. Fortunately, we were able to identify the problem, make changes and the subsequent batches were successful.

What did you learn in the early days of the Tapeta training surface on your farm?

It allowed me to train every day on a safe surface and we never had any worries about rain. We always knew we would have a good, safe track to train on. All my visitors backed up our opinion.

How and when did you make the decision to start a business resulting in your first installation at Presque Isle Downs?

We did not start manufacturing Tapeta commercially until we had actually trained on the surface ourselves for eight years. This gave us the advantage of training in different climatic conditions over that eight-year period. We wanted to be fully comfortable with the product before we took it to market. At that point, many people encouraged us  to move forward.

You actually did two Tapeta surfaces in 2007, the first at Presque Isle and then Golden Gate as part of the California mandate. What immediate benefits did you recognize?

Golden Gate with its wet winters had experienced a high fatality rate on dirt and it was reduced immediately after the change to Tapeta. The track superintendent told us he loved the fact that he was guaranteed a good safe track every day and was now able to go to bed at night and sleep instead of worrying what he would face the following morning on arrival at the track.

The brand new facility at Presque Isle Downs was the first new racetrack in the state for many years and the first synthetic surface in the East. It gave horsemen another option.

What were the criticisms that were inaccurate, misguided or, even worse, deceitful in regards to synthetics or even Tapeta specifically?

I think the biggest criticism that was wrongly stated has been the fact that synthetics don’t last. I think Tapeta’s record speaks for itself regarding longevity. As long as the tracks are correctly maintained, at this point no one can say what their lifespan truly is.  

Both Golden Gate and Presque Isle Downs, as mentioned above, were installed in 2007, so both facilities have been in use for 13 years to date and are still in great shape with no end in sight for their continued success. Godolphin's Tapeta track in Dubai has also been there for 13 years and, more importantly 13 long, very hot summers.

What are the most important issues you have encountered in the 20-plus years you have been installing Tapeta surfaces?

It is vitally important that the Tapeta team work closely with the track superintendent. We are fortunate to work with some really great people, and our philosophy is that we are all on the same team working towards the common goal of a safe surface for both horse and rider.  

We have an open line of communication with each of our tracks and we all learn from one another with the different issues that come up, often on a daily basis. It’s great to be able feed off everyone’s ideas. Because of this communication, we have been able to greatly improve the stability of the surface in a much broader temperature range. We have also developed a much better maintenance regime, which is where the track superintendents and his crew are vital.

What are the most important characteristics of Tapeta?

Any track turf, dirt or synthetic, should not be hard or cuppy. The aim of a Tapeta 10 is to be tight on top and soft underneath, which aids stability, cushion, rebound and memory.  

From the track owners’ perspective, Tapeta 10 helps the bottom line when it rains as it greatly reduces the number of scratches, be it from a sloppy dirt track or a race that comes off the turf and gets transferred.

How do you stay on top of the large number of racetracks and training centers that you manage all over the globe?   

Joan and Miguel Piedra try to visit each Tapeta racetrack installation at least once a year to maintain a good relationship and to inspect the surface regularly. Miguel is also very good at staying in contact with the racetrack crews via Facebook. They are all very willing to share ideas and any problems that may arise and help each other out. We are all one big team. Tapeta does not put in a track and then walk away. When you get a Tapeta track, you get the team for life.

Over the years, many articles have been written about improving the safety of dirt tracks to compete with the safety of synthetic tracks. Based on your deep experiences, could you comment on this?

No possible chance. I tried to come up with a safe dirt track 30 years ago, again 20 years ago and again ten years ago, and I wasn't even close.  

To help me with the unsolvable problem, I had track superintendents, consultants from NASA, farmers, sports field builders and many more. Numerous track superintendents have been trying for 40 years and no one has succeeded, and I doubt they ever will. For me a safe dirt track is an oxymoron.

What are the most important misconceptions that exist  that have limited the adoption and growth of synthetic racing surfaces?

I think the biggest misconception was when synthetic surfaces were given the label all-weather tracks. In fairness, nothing is all-weather. A synthetic track can handle a lot broader range of conditions that mother nature throws at them than most other surfaces. Realistically there are some conditions that just cannot be dealt with, the worst of which is an ice storm. Another is fog. 

Some people have suggested that the injuries on synthetics are the same in number but not in type. I think it was also rather naïve to think that synthetics would eliminate all injuries. That was just not a realistic expectation. After all, a large number of yearlings at the sales fail the vet before they are even broken, so why do people expect a synthetic surface to eliminate all injuries?  

Statistics overwhelmingly state that the synthetics are much safer than dirt, and the new Tapeta 10 is even safer and we are looking for even more improved statistics.   

The Tapeta 10 at Wolverhampton and Newcastle have had three fatalities in over 11,000 starters, and one of those was struck into from behind, which was pilot error.

Synthetics were in their infancy in the USA 15 years ago and, since that time, great strides have been made to improve those early installations. We are constantly researching and trialing new raw materials in an effort to improve.

Some people have suggested that synthetics don’t last. It has been down on my farm 23 years and at Golden Gate and Presque Isle 13 years and, as previously mentioned, they are still in great shape and we actually consider them to be better now then when they were originally installed as we add new generations of fibers and gel when required.    

Some of the bettors don’t like them. The really big gamblers in the UK love synthetics even more than turf.

Last autumn a Grade 1 2-year-old race in the UK was abandoned due to waterlogging on the turf track. It was to be run with five runners. The race was transferred to the Tapeta track at Newcastle and entries were reopened. It ended up going with 11 starters.  

It has been said that breakover is different from dirt to synthetics, but there is no scientific evidence to support this theory.

Some of the breeders are against synthetics because of the millions of dollars invested in dirt stallions and dirt mares, and I can well understand their position, but they have to move with the times. Let the horse decide.  

It was tough for those who used to produce bicycles when the motor car came along, and in more recent times it was very hard for newspapers and brick-and-mortar shops with the introduction of the internet. We all have to move with the times.

Do you have any suggestions for the industry in how it should think differently about Tapeta and synthetics in general?

Nobody can deny that statistically synthetics are much safer than dirt. We live in a different world today than even five years ago.  Racing is under the microscope and if we want to survive, we have to adapt. The general public will no longer accept the huge number of fatalities that occur on a dirt surface, nor should they.  We need to do better.  

Our entire team are all horsemen. We understand how fragile the modern-day horse is, and we are doing our best to help him. We will continue to look for further improvements and, along with other racing reform, hope that one day we can bring the general public back to our magnificent sport.

On Thursday: U.S. racing is not working hard enough to solve the equine injury problem, says Charles Hayward in the second part of this week’s View from the Rail

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