A Step Ahead

You've heard the names: Cushion Track, Polytrack, Tapeta, StaLok. They are the trademark names of the major players in racing's latest frontier: the new North American market to replace dirt tracks with synthetic ones.

Pardon the pun, but on the surface, there is little difference between their products. And, ahem, pun No. 2, they all claim to have a track record of success.

The four main players all offer a product that consists of high-quality sand, fibers, and in some cases rubber, mixed and coated with an oil-based wax product that sits atop an elaborate drainage system.

Doubters are, for now, few. An overwhelming majority of trainers approve of the fair, forgiving surfaces. Owners envision healthy horses that stay in training longer. Track officials dream of full fields. Everybody would love fewer breakdowns.

And while the race is on to pitch their products to racing associations across the continent, these new entrepreneurs are all on the same page: they're providing a safe and fair racing surface for Thoroughbred training and racing.

"It's safety for the horse and safety for the rider, period," said trainer Michael Dickinson, who owns Tapeta Footings along with Joan Wakefield. "Don't get bogged down in mindless, unimportant trivia--it's safety for the horse and rider, period. Nothing else really matters."

The safety record so far in North America gives ample proof synthetic surfaces are the path of the future. At The Jockey Club Round Table Conference last month in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., a presentation was made on the "Synthetic Surface Era." Speaking on behalf of Turfway Park was track president and CEO Robert Elliston.

Turfway offered North America's first racing on Polytrack, opening last September. Its marathon winter/ spring meet ran from December to early April.


"We have experienced a nearly 90% decrease in catastrophic breakdowns since installing Polytrack," Elliston reported. "Previously, from September 2004 through April 2005, we had 24 unfortunate breakdowns. During the same time frame the following year--September 2005 to April 2006--we had three. Take into account that we had nearly 1,300 more starters on Polytrack during that time, and this statistic is even more persuasive."

Elliston also said the track did a survey of Turfway Park trainers and jockeys and found that 96% of the jockeys and 95% of the trainers felt Polytrack was safer than a conventional dirt track.

Synthetic surfaces have more of a track record in England than they do in the U.S. Martin Collins, who developed Polytrack and markets it in North America in a joint venture with Keeneland, has three public tracks in operation in England: Lingfield, Wolverhampton, and Kempton Park. The surface at Lingfield has been down for some five years and has been lauded by horsemen as a safe and consistent racing surface.

In North America, Turfway Park, partially owned by Keeneland, has been open for training since the close of the spring meet; the track's fall meet opened Sept. 6. Polytrack was installed at Woodbine over the summer, and its new main track debuted Aug. 30. Keeneland's main track has been replaced with Polytrack, which will debut at its fall meeting that opens Oct. 6. The first grade I race on Polytrack will occur the following day with the running of the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity.

In California, synthetic surfaces have been mandated by the California Horse Racing Board for all major Thoroughbred tracks by the end of 2007. The first to make the conversion is Hollywood Park in Southern California, which opted for a Cushion Track surface, manufactured in England by Equestrian Surfaces. It is currently being installed and should be ready to go well in advance of the scheduled Nov. 1 opening date.

The major synthetic surfaces on the market are all relatively similar in makeup and heft. A good working number for a major circuit racetrack is 15,000-16,000 tons of mixed and blended material.

A man who has seen and studied all the synthetic surfaces is Eual Wyatt Jr., general manager of Hollywood Park. "I don't think there is much difference at all, frankly," he said of the products. "They all have their nuances, but they are all basically wax, sand, fiber, and rubber...but StaLok doesn't have rubber in its mix."

They are mainly blends of sand--particularly silica sand--rubber, fibers, and wax that coat the ingredients. Tapeta Footings is a proprietary blend, according to a close-to-the-vest Dickinson. StaLok, a product of the Phoenix-based Stabilizer Racing Surfaces, uses a "polymer coating," according to Jon Hubbs, who co-owns the business with his brother, Jim.

"Sometimes we use wax and sometimes we'll use different types of oils and polymer together," Hubbs said. "It depends on the location."

Polytrack uses a kind of wax called petrolatum, according to Jim Pendergest, general manager of Martin Collins Surfaces and Footings. "It's an oil derivative. It's used in things like food containers to help seal them."

These nuances of the ingredients are what set them apart and provide selling tools.

Polytrack's blend can include "jelly cable" and "dry, chopped cable." Those are new names for the old stuff that used to coat things like copper wire.

Philip Bond, marketing manager for Equestrian Surfaces, noted, "jelly cable is not a sustainable source. A lot of it is sourced from China. It's old telecommunication cable that has been down for 30-40 years."

Equestrian Surfaces manufactures its own synthetic fibers that are "produced specifically to our specifications and then are processed in our factory, where they are either chopped or treated. The product gets a great degree of consistency."

StaLok is a "second generation" product of Stabilizer Racing Surfaces. According to Hubbs, the company started in 1996 using fiber products to "stabilize" turf tracks and have done work with turf courses at Santa Anita, Bay Meadows, Lone Star Park, and Hollywood Park. Its initial sand track product added polypropylene fibers and an organic stabilizer to the existing surface.

Wyatt said Hollywood Park originally preferred Polytrack, but opted for Equestrian Surfaces' product that has been installed at various training centers in England. "What impressed us about Cushion Track when we saw the various gallops is that they were all consistent, which we hadn't noticed in some of the others."

Back It Up

All of the companies offer warranties to some degree. Equestrian Surfaces, which was started 18 years ago and is run by Paul and Rita Harper, has a five-year deal with Hollywood Park for service after the installation. "We offer a very robust support package," Bond said. "We tend to work alongside the project and work after the project.

"We'll be over here monthly and for the major meets to advise on issues of maintenance," he said. "These surfaces require a little bit of hands-on maintenance until the staff gets the feel of the product."

StaLok offers a two-year warranty, according to Hubbs. "We let them know that even after two years we'll have a look at it and then maybe add a little of this or a little of that. For the most part, the material is going to last for quite a few years."

Dickinson said Tapeta Footings "stands behind this product 100% and we strive to have complete satisfaction."

Polytrack offers a one-year warranty. "If it's not exactly like we think it should be, then we'll modify the surface and make it right," said Pendergest.

Due to coverage on TVG, Turfway's initial Polytrack meet was played out under the scrutiny of the entire industry. When Turfway opened a year ago, many felt there was too much "kickback" to the surface. Kickback is the amount of material--and height of that material--kicked up into the air as horses run around the track. One of the claims of synthetic surface providers is their products produce less kickback than conventional dirt tracks. The material at Turfway was modified during the late winter part of the meet, and the surface was also reconditioned this summer.

"We took 4,200 tons of material off of Turfway and replaced it," Pendergest said. "The people at Turfway will tell you they were thrilled with it. It has done exactly what we wanted it to do. We're trying to tweak it a little bit. We've added a little different kind of sand with a higher content of wax, and we're using some dry, chopped cable in it. Spandex is also being used in the mix."

Don't worry about the 4,200 tons of removed Polytrack--it won't end up in a landfill. It will be resold to another track, training center, or riding arena, because it's "still a good product."


Patent Pending

And while there is healthy competition among the vendors to sell their products, all looking to install a system in the United States must pay homage to Dickinson, who first laid his Tapeta surface at his training facility in 1998. In a stroke of business genius, Dickinson owns the patent in the U.S. for "wax-coated synthetic surfaces." Polytrack has a license, as does Cushion Track.

"It's quite a comprehensive patent," said Bond. "We work closely with Michael. Nobody can lay a product that uses this technology and the type of drainage system without the consent or with some sort of licensing arrangement with the patent holder, Michael Dickinson. We pay for that privilege."

It's Not All Wet

While the synthetic material itself is ideal for horses to run over, the drainage system is a vital part of the whole equation, and part of Dickinson's patent. To quote Dickinson:

"From the ground up, the Tapeta system consists of a solid base, a geo-textile membrane to prevent the stone from migrating into the base, drainage pipes--you can never have too many--a foot of large aggregate over the pipes, another porous dividing layer, either geo-textile or open textured macadam, and then finally the Tapeta surface."

All of the companies offer a drainage system that turns "old school" track drainage 90 degrees from horizontal to vertical. Over a traditional dirt-based racetrack, water drains horizontally because most tracks are clay-based, thus barely porous, and slightly banked lower toward the inside rail. As rain falls and collects in the dirt or sand, water seeps downward toward the inside rail, creating a surface that is not consistent from the rail out. That inconsistency can be even more extreme once it stops raining and the track begins to dry out, with a drier, perhaps loose track in some spots, and wet, packed-down soil in other spots.

Since the synthetic tracks are made of material that is coated with a waxy substance, the water runs right through the product.

"With the vertical drainage, it's a flat surface," said Pendergest. "The water goes straight through and immediately escapes through the drainage system and goes to the infield. That way, you have consistency from rail to rail, all the way around the track. You don't have any washout."

StaLok offers a concrete-based system, while the other three use asphalt.

"We like the concrete because it can take more weight on the surface when you're installing the product or fixing it or working it," said StaLok's Hubbs. "We offer various types of drainage--it depends on the needs of the client. We can go with collector trenches with stone and sand in them to collect the water, and not necessarily go with the porous asphalt. It all depends on the budget and location."

For the wax-coated sand surface, the "footprint" is where the second and third keys to safety come in.

"When a horse's foot hits on a sand track, you see the sand displaced in front of it, and as they go off of it, you see them making an elongated imprint," Pendergest explained. "When you look at a footprint on a sand track...if a hoof is four inches long, the footprint might be six inches or longer. That sand becomes displaced and it won't come back. With Polytrack (or other synthetic surfaces), where their foot hits is where it comes back off, and that footprint is not very deep. When horses impact Polytrack, you can actually see the surface rise back up, and the indentation is lessened.

"So the next horse coming along is not stepping in, like, a half of a footprint. If they step in that other footprint, they're going to strike it at an angle, which can't be good for them. With Polytrack, that is lessened. It may only be an inch deep as opposed to two or three on a sand track. There are a lot less injuries because of that."

The third key is that with a synthetic surface, horses spring off the ground when they push off and don't have the "slip" they would get over a sand track. That sensation, in human terms, is the feeling one gets while jogging on a loose-sand beach. The non-slip is also easier on equine joints, because they are not slipping as they are trying to run.

At What Price Safety?

Cost factors for installing a synthetic surface vary, mainly on how much one wants the manufacturing company to do. For example, Woodbine's drainage system was installed by a construction company it had previous experience with, leaving the Polytrack folks just to deliver the material and finish the job. All of the companies are creative in their services, but as a general rule of thumb, installing a synthetic surface over a major racetrack is going to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $6-8 million. The recent spike in the cost of oil has also played a factor in some of the types of wax that are used to coat the material. The wax used to coat Polytrack at Keeneland cost twice what it did a year ago when the surface was installed at Turfway.

There are some cost savings in maintenance, since all of the surfaces claim to require less than traditional dirt tracks. They don't need water, and they don't need to be harrowed between each race. It's up to each track crew to come up with what they are comfortable with. The number of horses on the surface per day is also part of the big picture.

To keep an eye on quality, Equestrian Surfaces manufactured the material in England for Hollywood Park and shipped it all the way from England to the West Coast, where it arrived via large tankers Sept. 1. Tapeta and Polytrack have portable mixers and equipment they can ship across the country for each particular job. StaLok has static plants in Canada, Pennsylvania, Colorado, California, and Arizona, as well as portable equipment that can blend the material on site.

With race meets in Kentucky, Canada, and soon to come to California, synthetic surfaces are quickly being blended into the fabric of Thoroughbred racing. Perhaps the best thing going for all of the companies is their commitment to the horse and to safety.

Hubbs summed it up best: "All of the products out there are very good products. They're going to help improve racing no matter what. They're easier to maintain, easier to take care of, and they're safer for the horses."

About the Author

Evan Hammonds

Evan Hammonds is the Executive Editor for The Blood-Horse.

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