Surface Switch

It is often said the key to real estate is "location, location, location." Well, listening to the speakers at the Aug. 8-9 conference of racetrack superintendents, it became clear the key to a good surface is "consistency, consistency, consistency."

And the key to consistency for many tracks and training centers looking into the future may be alternative surfaces designed to provide horses a more uniform feel from day to day.

Many members of the profession who diligently and tirelessly work behind the scenes tilling the soil over which horses run heard three presentations about surfaces that could make their jobs easier and provide a safer environment for both animals and humans.

Many other subjects were covered for the hands-on superintendents--fly and mosquito control, wetting agents for turf courses, and necropsy study results--but three different presentations were made by persons hoping to convince the industry the future lies in synthetic surfaces.

Rogers Beasley of Keeneland, the point-man for the track's Polytrack efforts, spoke on the first morning, and the following day trainer Michael Dickinson, who developed and patented his Tapeta surface, and Bill Casimaty, a representative of StrathAyr Turf Systems in Australia, made PowerPoint presentations.

Interestingly, the fourth annual track superintendents' conference was held this year at Del Mar. While numerous tracks have privately expressed a serious interest in Polytrack, the only one besides Turfway Park to publicly announce its desire to install the surface is the Southern California seaside track that must constantly deal with an over-abundance of morning workouts and the ocean air's effects on its dirt and turf tracks.

"If I could put it in today and race on it tomorrow, I would," said Craig Fravel, executive vice president of Del Mar. "I've talked to a lot of people and I've yet to hear the first negative comment."

Fravel has traveled to Lexington four times to inspect the Polytrack on Keeneland's five-furlong training track and will return in September. Only this time, he--and many others in the coming months--will be driving 70 miles north of Keeneland to Turfway Park. Racing officials, track superintendents, horsemen, and jockeys are all anxious to see the surface under racing conditions.

Polytrack has been installed at training facilities at Juddmonte Farms near Lexington and Highpointe Training Center outside Louisville, but Turfway is the first North American track that will run races on the all-weather synthetic surface. Turfway opens Sept. 7 and the Keeneland yearling sale begins a week later for its two-week run. It is expected that many of the trainers who travel to Keeneland for the sale will also make the short trip to Turfway to see the Polytrack in action. Fravel said he intends to join a group of Southern California trainers in a visit to Turfway.

"If you watch horses go over it, it doesn't take a lot of convincing," said Fravel, who has also inspected the surface in England at Lingfield and Newmarket. "The real difficulty with any track is getting it to be the same every day. Polytrack is (the same every day)."

Fravel believes the track will also provide an important benefit for the health of horses. "There is much less kickback and I think many horses that now must gun to the lead because they don't like kickback will not feel as compelled to be on the lead."

If the surface is safer for horses, it goes without saying it will also be safer for jockeys. Darrell Haire, the national member representative for the Jockeys' Guild, has spoken to jockeys who galloped and breezed horses over the surface at Keeneland. "The jockeys all say the horses get over it very well, that it is a very giving surface," Haire said. "Like everyone else, I want to see it under racing conditions. I will be at Turfway talking to the riders."

Turfway usually loses days each winter when the track freezes and thaws. Beasley said the Polytrack never froze this winter despite several days of sub-freezing temperatures. He also told the track superintendents that since the Polytrack was installed last fall, it has not been watered once.

Englishman Martin Collins, who invented Polytrack, said interest is high in North America, and he has recently received serious inquiries from Japan and Australia. Japan races primarily on turf and Australia races exclusively on grass. Keeneland bought a 50% interest Collins' company for North and South America.

Collins installed his first Polytrack at Richard Hannon's training yard in England 18 years ago.

Dickinson, also a native of England, moved to the United States in 1987 and bought his farm in Maryland in 1996. His Tapeta surface has been in use for seven years. A former steeplechase rider, he has an extensive background in equine surfaces, having worked with Vincent O'Brien at Ballydole in Ireland and on the restoration of the gallops at Manton, near Newmarket.

Always wanting to eventually market Tapeta to others, Dickinson has just begun that process. The first contract was recently signed to install Tapeta at Michael Moran's training facility in Uniondale, Pa.

"Tapeta has been down for seven years," Dickinson said, and it has "been through a drought, a hurricane, and three-foot snow drifts. Through all that, it has gotten better, not deteriorated."

While Tapeta is also being marketed to racing interests, Dickinson said that "the non-racing markets will be very big. Members of the USET (United States Equestrian Team) have visited and the show horse people love the surface."

Dickinson said one of the major advantages he sees to Polytrack and Tapeta is that you can bank the turns, which "is safer for the horses." At Manton, the turns were banked 8%.

StrathAyr has installed its surface at such facilities as Sha Tin racecourse in Hong Kong, Kranji in Singapore, and Moonee Valley in Australia. It also is the grass on which the National Football League's Houston Texans--owned by owner/breeder Robert McNair--play in Reliant Stadium.

On top of layers of sand and gravel is a natural grass surface reinforced with the company's patented mesh elements.

Casimaty said non-catastrophic injuries are down 55% in Singapore, while handle is up. The surfaces are proving popular, he said, because "compaction is the cancer of racetracks" and with these types of surfaces there is no compaction.

"This has always been about safety," Beasley said of the new surfaces, quoting Keeneland president Nick Nicholson, who said, "If we can prevent one horse from a career-ending injury, we paid for Polytrack."

All three men spoke about increased starts by horses that train on all-weather surfaces. That, they said, leads to bigger fields, which leads to larger handle.

"Your ally (with an all-weather surface) is the mutuel manager," Dickinson told the nearly 90 attendees.

Among the other topics and speakers at the conference:

  • Drs. Rick Arthur and Sue Stover discussed the results of California's necropsy program. The state is the only jurisdiction that requires all dead horses to have a necropsy exam. Arthur said during the past 15 years they have ascertained that half of all catastrophic injuries involved some degree of stress remodeling.

    The advent of nuclear scintigraphy, which helps prevent injuries, has been a huge step in reducing catastrophic injuries, he said. "Johar and Pleasantly Perfect both had detectable stress fractures and came back to win Breeders' Cup races," Arthur said to emphasize his point.

    Stover said 3,665 horses have had necropsy exams since 1990 and 81% died due to injury--of that percentage 64% from racing and 36% from training.

    "Often times the first thing that is blamed is the racing surface, but there are many factors," Stover said. "The injury is rarely from one bad step."
  • Ken Mauser of Aquatrols Chemicals spoke on wetting agents, which a few tracks are beginning to use. The process reduces the size of water droplet clusters, which should help turf courses have more even footing.
  • There was an international flavor at the conference, with speakers from several foreign countries including Christian de Lagarde of France Galop, who spoke on the trends for racing and training surfaces in his native land, and Warren Williams, the racecourse manager for the Brisbane Turf Club in Australia, who talked about the tracks, racing clubs, and surfaces Down Under. Williams cares for a course upon which racing is conducted year-round and in an area that receives about 50 inches of rain annually.
  • Dr. Mick Peterson of the University of Maine discussed early results of a comparative track study using a robotic hoof tester. "Variation is our major concern, but we need comparisons of more tracks," Peterson said. Discussing various surfaces and the movement of horses, he said it was interesting to note "variability between tracks was less important than variability at one track."

About the Author

Dan Liebman

Dan Liebman is a former Editor-in-Chief of The Blood-Horse as well as a past President of Blood-Horse Publications.

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