Recent decisions by Keeneland and Del Mar racetracks to replace their synthetic racing surfaces with dirt have been hotly debated. Horse Racing Business takes a look at the decision using an analytical method rather than simply voicing an opinion.


Shell Oil Company pioneered a technique popular in strategy formulation called scenario planning. The objective is to evaluate the wisdom of contemplated corporate strategies within the context of future scenarios that have a realistic probability of occurring.

Following is such a scenario, circa 2018, pertaining to the fictional Regal Race Couse. Regal was sued by a jockey, Jim Smith, whose horse broke down during a race in 2017; Smith became a paraplegic. One of the jurors in the court case, Carol Jones, is telling a newspaper reporter why the jury found Regal liable for damages.

Reporter: Please briefly describe the jury’s deliberations.

Jones: I am a chef at a local restaurant and have never been to a racetrack in my life. I might have watched the Kentucky Derby once or twice. The jury was made up of others like me with little or no knowledge of racing and open minds about whether Smith had a good case.

Back in 2014, Regal tore out its racetrack with a manmade surface, called a synthetic, and installed a dirt track. The plaintiff, jockey Smith, claimed that Regal knowingly jeopardized his well-being because it had plenty of hard evidence that a synthetic surface was safer for horse and rider than a dirt surface.

Reporter: How did the jury come to the conclusion that Smith had a strong case?

Jones: Both sides brought in expert witnesses—horse trainers, engineers, veterinarians—to support their version. Frankly, we were mostly confused by the conflicting testimony and did not know who to believe. In the end, we relied on the best information we had, which was a scientific study by an organization called the Jockey Club. This group is the registrar of all Thoroughbreds in the United States and its members are the most prominent people in American racing. The Jockey Club, we found out, is generally regarded to be the most influential organization in racing. The Jockey Club study revealed that synthetic racetracks are much safer than dirt tracks. I don’t recall the exact statistics, but it seems that horse fatalities are about twice as likely to occur on dirt tracks as on the manmade variety.

Reporter: So you relied on the Jockey Club findings in rendering your verdict?

Jones: Yes, indeed, that was the best science we had. What’s more, here is what else was persuasive: Some of the people who run Regal, as well as a few of their board of directors, are members of the Jockey Club. Yet here they were in court arguing against the findings of their own organization [The Jockey Club]. It was a contradiction that we could not buy. They are intelligent and educated folks and had to know that dirt racetracks are not as safe as synthetic tracks. Therefore, we the jury, concluded that they knowingly put jockeys in additional peril by taking out a synthetic track in 2014 and putting in a dirt track. No doubt in the jury’s mind, Regal knew beforehand and went ahead with a dirt track anyway. Reminded some of us jurors of when General Motors was exposed several years ago for putting an ignition switch in cars that engineers knew in advance was more dangerous than a slightly more expensive switch…and customers ended up getting injured or dying as a result.

Reporter: Thanks for your observations.

Jones: One last thing. I heard that the owner of the horse Smith was riding also sued Regal for his death and that Regal settled out of court. Also heard that Regal is going back to a synthetic track.

If I were in top management or on the board of a racetrack that is about to replace a synthetic surface with dirt, I would assign a fairly high probability to eventually encountering a scenario similar to the one described. In my view, weighing costs vs. benefits, it would be difficult to justify a decision to return to a dirt racetrack.

Copyright © 2014 Horse Racing Business


  1. Del Mar and Keeneland are obviously chasing the Breeders’ Cup. They don’t care about horses and riders, only money. Sounds great to say your utmost concern is for safety, then act just the opposite. Watch what people do, not say. Safety comes first unless it gets in the way of all those BC $.