New 'super dirt' for horse racing

January 6, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
This week marks the first time that thoroughbred horses can no longer race on dirt in California. As of January 1, the California Horse Racing Board requires a high-tech surface that feels more like carpet to the animals and riders. Richard Hart reports from Golden Gate Fields -- one of the first tracks in the country to convert.

Ah, the sounds of the races! The call to the post. The starting gate. The thunder of hooves. Well, actually, there is no thunder any more. The reason is this. It's called Tapeta.

You'll hear it described as sand covered with wax, with some carpet fiber thrown in for bulk. However, it's actually more high tech than that.

It's the same silica used in computer chips, covered with a polymer. It feels like-- well, not like dirt, not like sawdust.

Veteran California Jockey Chad Schvaneveldt says, "It's way easier on my knees, my hips, my back. So, I know if it's easier on myself, it's got to be easier on the horses."

The softer surface has been shown to reduce injuries, while providing better traction. It never, ever gets muddy -- even in pouring rain. That means there is no runoff, and what used to be ditches are now native grass fields that filter rainwater. Since there is no dust to be sprayed down, this track alone could save 30 million gallons of water each year.

The downside is that certain organic materials don't dissolve into the dirt. That has created a new job category.

The transition isn't going to be easy. There are three artificial surfaces competing for racing dollars, some riders feel the traction is so good, a horse can stop too suddenly, and what about tradition?

Calvin Rainey, Sr. VP at Golden Gate Fields acknowledges, "I think there are definitely trainers that miss it, because they're used to training on the dirt. And it's a different surface, so there are some things to be learned. I don't think it changes necessarily tradition much. If it's going to protect the horses, then it's a good thing."

The biggest horse racing meet yet to use the new high tech dirt is the one going on this week at Golden Gate Fields.