Ian Pearse of Melbourne, Australia, is receiving plenty of attention these days as the man expected to fix Santa Anita's troubled Cushion Track synthetic surface. Founder and president of Pro-Ride Racing Australia, Pearse this week begins what is expected to be a four- or five-day renovation of the Santa Anita main track in an effort to cure the drainage problems that have plagued the surface whenever rain hits.
Question: How did you become involved with developing synthetic racetracks?
Answer: The whole thing started because I wanted a dressage arena at home. You can get dirt, but we wanted something that you could ride on in the winter. In 1985 I started my first company in equestrian surfaces in Australia, where we did a lot of dressage arenas and show jumping arenas. We've always been into the horses, first involved in dressage and then eventing. I do reining now.
That's where we started to learn all the things about equestrian surfaces--takeoff, landing positions, the sideways movement, how the horses reacted to ground. In indoor schools, we were using a wax-based product--wax, sand, and fiber.
Q: Why did you switch from a wax-based surface to your liquid polymetric binder?
A: In about mid-1995 we started looking into racing. I put in our first two training tracks, which were at Lindsay Park (in Angaston, South Australia, affiliated with trainer David Hayes). I used the technology that I used in the equestrian arenas, which was wax, fiber, sand. I soon found after my first two tracks that in the Australian climate, wax has had some problems. It got too hot. It would start stripping off the sand, and it would create a problem in the bottom of the track.
I designed this elastic binder--it's like a rubber band. Then you melt it and you put it onto the sand, and it makes sand-like putty. I have to heat it up to turn it to a liquid, and then that gets sprayed onto sand. But to take out the hot process, I've emulsified it. I've turned the hot liquid material into a cold liquid--easier to transport, easier to work with, easier to store.
We can go probably from -15 to 45° Celsius (about 5 to 113° Fahrenheit)--a broad spectrum of temperatures. If you're using a wax, it goes from a solid, like a candle, but it can instantly turn to a liquid, depending on what temperature it gets to. When you put a hot wax on cold sand, they repel from each other. It's like putting oil in water. It doesn't bond to itself.
That is the main reason why we can fix this where the others can't because they all use hot binders. You can't put a hot binder on wet sand. But you can put a liquid binder like this on wet sand.
(Our product) doesn't melt and then migrate. What happens with the wax is once the heat hits and it gets a certain temperature, it will slowly strip off and go to the bottom of the surface. That's why a lot of them will get harder and harder on the bottom and softer and softer on top.
Q: Why have you put in 15 training tracks in Australia and now one in Kentucky, but as yet no racetracks?
A: In 1999 we installed our first training track. In Australia, the synthetic tracks haven't gone into the racing environment, which has been all turf. They've gone all training tracks for all the testing and to get all the trainers and jockeys and everyone used to them Then they'll step into racing.
In Australia and everywhere else in the world it's harder to put in a training track because it's just getting hammered seven days a week. When you're holding a race meeting, you've got (only) a hundred horses for the day going over the track.
In Australia they (installed synthetic training tracks) because of water. The whole motivation is water saving.
Q: In the U.S. the primary reason behind the installation of synthetic surfaces has been to reduce injuries. How well does Pro-Ride perform in this regard?
A: All our tracks in Australia, we are seeing at least a 70% reduction (in injuries). By rights and in most places around the world, good synthetic training tracks or racetracks do reduce injuries greatly. If they're not, there's something wrong with the track.
Probably the #1 big difference from the way we do it to the way the others do it is, with our product, the whole surface is the cushion. (At Santa Anita), we're going to have 6-6 1/4 inches as a compacted layer, the same as a dirt track. What will happen if you harrow that, it would expand incredibly, from 6 to 9 inches or even greater.
Q: Have you found a reduction in one type of injury but an increase in another type, say, fewer chipped bones but more hind-end problems?
A: We just haven't had that experience. Perhaps it is because we (in Australia) are turf racing and not dirt racing. There's an argument over here to say that horses bred for running on dirt are more on the forehand. I think there's something in putting dirt horses on synthetic tracks. I think it's going to take a little bit of time because (horsemen may) have to change their training techniques.
Q: Santa Anita was re-leveled Jan. 29-30 before three days of racing to ready it for your renovation. Why was that done, and what will be your procedure in the renovation?
A: All of this is done on percentages, an exact formula. We had to balance the track out first so that it's the right thickness everywhere. Then the same amount of material gets applied over the whole track, and you get the right result.
We'll harrow the track and break up the hard material underneath (below the Cushion Track and above the asphalt). Then we'll be applying the liquid (binder).
There will be three applications of the liquid applied to the track, about 120,000 gallons. That liquid will then all be mixed in so that it coats the granules of sand. After that's done, we'll put in about 480 tons of fiber.
Q: Santa Anita has an asphalt base. Has that been part of the problem?
A: The problem is not the asphalt layer. The problem is with the sand being a fine-particle sand.
We've done them with an asphalt layer and without an asphalt layer. It's generally a money issue (asphalt being more expensive). If I put an asphalt layer in Queensland, I'd make it very open, very porous so that it would accommodate whatever amount of rain. (Asphalt) is the better way of going because it's an exact level. But you've got to make sure it's very open.
Q: Once your renovation is completed, will materials have to be re-applied?
A: The horses take a small percentage (of material away), and a small percentage evaporates. The more the machinery is on it--that's really what does most of the damage. With these (tracks), the less maintenance you do, the better off you'll be in the longer term.
But having said that, they are synthetic tracks, and whether it's a wax or whether it's binders or fibers, over time you will have to add small percentages of new material just to rejuvenate it. We add maybe 1% or half a percent every year or every six months. In this environment, where you're doing 1,500 or 2,000 horses a morning and then racing, you probably would do it before the meet and at the end of the meet. But that has to be worked out yet as to when is the best time to do it.
Q: How confident are you that this solution at Santa Anita will work?
A: At the end of the day, we're trying to work with a very, very damaged product. The way I look at it is that everybody else in the world does wax. We're the only ones who have gone down this path. Everybody else is going with basically the same formulation, and they've all got problems.
I'm sitting out there on a limb all by myself, and I've been following this technology for a lot of years now. If I say that I can fix it to get it to drain and give it some cushion, somewhere along the line you've got to stand up to the plate, don't you? If we couldn't rectify this, we wouldn't be here.
(Originally published at BloodHorse.com.)
About the Author
Tracy Gantz is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She is the Southern California correspondent for The Blood-Horse and a regular contributor to Paint Horse Journal, Paint Racing News, and Appaloosa Journal.
POLL: Tack Shopping Choices