This month we look back at the history of synthetic equestrian surfaces. To do this we first have to consider a definition of a synthetic surface. It is generally considered that any surface that is man-made, and that does not include simple dirt, can be termed a synthetic surface. A tighter definition sometimes used is a man-made surface that does not rely on water/moisture to hold it together, so essentially constitutes all coated surfaces. This definition would therefore preclude all uncoated surfaces. We'll stick with this narrow one for now.
The first synthetic surface was installed at The Meadows Racetrack in Pennsylvania U.S.A. in 1963. This was a tartan turf material made by 3M. Tartan has become a generic term for polyurethane sports surfaces, usually in athletics sport, and the surface at The Meadows was very similar. The surface was supposed to end maintenance issues, be usable in all weathers, and be kind to horses. In fact it only lasted a season due to a number of unforeseen problems. When it rained patches of different colour emerged which spooked the runners. Clearing droppings also was an issue as the contrast with the flat surface also disturbed the horses. But most of all the surface was just too hard and unforgiving.
Despite this a further synthetic track, also based on 3M Tartan technology was installed at Tropical Park in Miami, Florida in 1966. Again, few trainers allowed their horses to run on the track. A little known fact is that the then Chairman of 3M, Bill McKnight, owned a Racing stud and produced many winners – the name of the facility was Tartan Farm, and it was after this that 3M named their synthetic sports surface range.
Still undaunted, another kind of synthetic surface, Saf T Turf, also manufactured by 3M was installed at Calder Racetrack, also in Florida in May 1971. By September of the same year the track was covered over with sand!
The first synethic surface based on the more familiar coated sand was installed in the U.K. by trainer Richard Hannon in 1987. This was Polytrack, a wax coated sand surface manufactured by Martin Collins Enterprises. It is interesting to note that a number of synthetic surfaces based on sand were being developed independently at this time. The patent literature gives a clue as to who were the pioneers. Whilst Martin Collins Polytrack is generally accepted as the first commercial installation of a coated sand surface, En Tous cas were the first to file a patent based on their polymercoated sand composition, Equitrack in January 1986. Their first commercial installation was at Remmington Park in 1988. Martin Collins followed with an installation at Lingfield Park in the U.K. in 1989. Despite on-going problems with these surfaces (Remington Park replaced the Equitrack surface in 1991), further synthetic surface installations appeared, particularly in the U.S.A. over the next decade.
Remarkably, in 2006, the California Horse Racing Board mandated the use of synthetic surfaces by 2008. There followed a manic phase where many tracks, including facilities outside of California moved to synthetic surface. There were also prestigious installations outside of the U.S.A. such as Michael Dickinson's Tapeta surface at the Meydan racetrack in Dubai. However all was not well and several real or perceived problems continued with these surfaces, around maintenance issues, drainage, track bias, and horse injuries. Gradually, one by one the synthetic surfaces were removed and replaced with dirt.
This timeline has concentrated on the racing scene, where the history is considerably easier to track than the thousands of equestrian facilities around the world. There appears not to be such a defined trend of a rise in popularity of synthetic surfaces followed by a sharp decline. Some of those surfaces used on racetracks have also been marketed as equestrian surfaces. In many cases the material that was removed from racetracks has been sold to the equestrian community. Today, coated surfaces appear just as popular, where a low maintenance, dust-free option is required. However we still find that the old problems are still there with wax-based coated surfaces. Many facilities are having to water their wax surfaces because the wax no longer binds the sand and additive particle together. Although track times are not important in the equestrian world, the wax surfaces still suffer from significant 'going' variation as the ambient temperature changes.
As a footnote, En tous cas, one of the pioneers of coated sand surfaces and one of the few that based their coating on polymer and not wax is no longer in the business. However, Nick Attwood, founder and owner of Attwood Equestrian Surfaces was a research scientist for En tous cas back in the day, and has used that knowledge to develop Attwood's polymer-coated footings into the highest performing synthetic footings available today.