Dirt or synthetic? It’s an old question being brought to new light as recent studies show how the two types of racing surfaces can affect a horse’s well-being.

The Global Symposium on Racing, held in Tucson, Ariz., is known for bringing cutting-edge issues and trends into discussion. When the topic of racing surfaces came into question, both panels—those in favor of dirt tracks and those in favor of synthetic—came to talk about the newest studies regarding each type of surface.

The heart of the controversy focuses on which surface results in more injuries to the horse. The argument for synthetic tracks has stemmed from statistics showing fewer injuries as well as more consistent data provided on an annual basis. Data from dirt tracks remain variable, a factor that many suggest is due to weather.

Since opinions on this subject range wildly in the racing community, it is important that more information is collected from a wider variety of sources. Dr. Mick Peterson, a racing-surface specialist, has been developing the necessary equipment for this data to be gathered. In his presentation at the Symposium, he highlighted how his laboratory at the University of Kentucky has been making scientific tools to accurately determine which factors of the track are truly impacting the horses’ safety.

 “We need more information,” said Peterson. “We need more data on what impacts the horse. And we are going to have to be able to answer transparently to a broader audience of stakeholders that we are doing everything possible to protect the horse. If that is going to take changes, if that is going to take more effort and labor, then that is what it is going to take.”

Peterson’s goal is not to eliminate dirt tracks, rather to make them as safe as synthetic ones. If this is achieved, it is argued that dirt would be favorable for retaining the surfaces that horses in the U.S. have been bred to run on. Many racers also believe that factors such as the impact of banking on racetrack turns are affecting injury rates, and that there are countless other non-track related variables impacting horses.

Former trainer Michael Dickinson opposed Peterson’s thoughts on this, suggesting that change is the only viable option to assure the proper treatment of racehorses moving forward. During his presentation, Dickinson outlined the ways that Tapeta and Tapeta 10, the synthetic tracks developed by his wife, provide advantages over dirt surfaces.

With statistics showing less races in North America being held on dirt tracks, many are questioning whether this marks the beginning of the end for the traditional racing surface. The early 2000s showed a major shift toward synthetic racetracks, but many reverted back to dirt after a number of complaints were made by trainers, bettors and breeders. Some current factors, including the growing attention from animal-rights organizations, are making people wonder if another, more permanent shift has already begun.

“The revolution against dirt has already started,” said Dickinson. He further detailed his thoughts on how this transition will occur, stating that “it’s going to be the politicians who are going to force the change.”