The Super-Optimized Dirt That Helps Keep Racehorses Safe

Despite the weather, a decent crowd trickles into the grandstands. Some treat it as a special outing, donning heels, dresses, bowties, hats. For others in jeans and beat-up baseball caps, this is just another day of betting.

Nicknamed “The Great Race Place,” Santa Anita is certainly scenic. A flower-encircled statue of Seabiscuit stands before the park’s Art Deco-style buildings, overlooking the public entrance. An Insta-ready backdrop with flowers and succulents awaits selfie-happy racegoers.

The media is here too, to cover the races of course, but also waiting to see if disaster will strike. They fill the press box, bustle near the rail, and interview Stronach Group executives near the suites.

Track superintendent Moore watches the races from his austere box at the corner of the grandstands. Moore is superstitious. He uses the same type of pen, follows the same routines, and brings the same snacks up to his box, all to guard against the possibility of another horse going down or a jockey getting hurt. A mostly finished Big Gulp and couple unopened bags of sunflower seeds sit beside him as he views the action on the track, glancing alternatively through binoculars and at a little TV.

Jackson didn’t run the hoof-testing machine that morning, as had been planned, for fear that the drizzle could rust out the specialized cables, causing friction when the weight drops and possibly costing thousands in damage. He and Moore decided they would run it once things cleared up, maybe the next day.

With Moore’s maintenance staff and the data provided by Peterson’s team, the track is doing all it can to keep the dirt consistent. Even if “it”—it being this nebulous force clouding Santa Anita—is not the footing, the footing is essential for them to monitor as they work toward reform. Santa Anita can’t control a jockey poorly guiding their mount, a horse taking a wrong step, a pre-existing condition evading the vet’s pre-race exams. But they can control the track.

And so Moore sits in his booth, watching. He watches to see how the dirt and the turf move under the horses’ hooves, whether it flies up in poofs, if it seems to be too deep in a way that might tire horses out, if the clods flying up from their hooves look natural, whether a horse takes a misstep or seems hurt. That’s the art of it, learned over decades of experience. He combines that with science. That morning, he tested the track with the time-domain reflectometry moisture probe, seeing how firm the track was setting underneath the cushion. Everything checked out.

As a pack of horses crosses the finish line, he peers at the timer. “That was really slow.” Speed is a function of track firmness. The firmer the track, the faster horses can propel themselves. Three or four decades ago, California tracks were known for being hard and fast, and horses set spectacular records. Of course, it’s also harder on the horses’ skeletal system.

Moore’s mantra is “slow is safe.” Within reason, of course.

Sure enough, the landline phone rings. A higher-up has a question about the race speeds—or lack thereof. Still, Moore’s mantra holds true, at least for now.

As the final races wrap, the maintenance crew waits in the harrow yard. They’ll head out soon to work the track. Meanwhile, folks in the stands scream for their favorite to run faster, howling at the lead horse to pull away.

The next day, a Saturday, has a bigger crowd and the activists are here. About a dozen racing abolitionists hold signs showing the death toll at the track, begging for an end to the sport. But a group of racing lovers face off with them, lifting their own signs touting their love for the animals and beckoning drivers to honk in support of the industry. At one point, the two groups begin arguing; it becomes so charged that the police are called to break it up.

Inside the park, the first seven races are relatively uneventful.

Then in the eighth race, a three-year-old colt named Emtech crashes to the ground on his way down the stretch. The force sends his jockey sailing—it’s Gutierrez, the man who piloted Psychedelicat in his ill-fated race nine months prior.

Vets rush to Emtech’s side. It’s clear even from the stands that both his front legs are broken. They pull up a screen so the shocked crowd can’t see, and then they euthanize him on the spot.

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