08/30/2006 11:00PM

All smiles as Polytrack debuts

Michael Burns Photo Ltd.
Demi Song, Emile Ramsammy up, scores in Woodbine's first race on the new Polytrack surface on Wednesday.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Woodbine officially entered the Polytrack era just after 6:50 p.m. Wednesday evening, when Demi Song won the first race on the new surface for trainer George Newland and jockey Emile Ramsammy.

By the time the seven-race card finished at about 9:50 p.m., the reviews were unanimously positive.

"We asked for feedback, and it's all been positive," said Chris Evans, Woodbine's vice president of Thoroughbred racing. "There's some kickback, but it's less than some other Polytracks."

Ramsammy, who guided Demi Song to a 10 3/4-length victory in the opener, echoed Evans's comments, saying the Polytrack was an improvement over Woodbine's old dirt track.

"There's a little bit of kickback, but it's nothing compared to the dirt track, that sting it had," said Ramsammy. "You can definitely feel the difference. When I've been on horses in the morning, and there's a horse coming by, you don't even hear them."

Ramsammy added that he believes the absence of the sound of hoofbeats may help tone down aggressive front-runners.

Newland, not surprisingly, also was thrilled with the new surface.

"I wanted to make history," said Newland. "I had a gut feeling he was going to win, but not that comfortably. He trained over [Polytrack] a couple of times. It's so smooth and comfortable. I really like the surface. I think most horses are going to like it."

Competing against fellow 3-year-olds in a $40,000 claimer, Demi Song completed the 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.43, and it appeared that the Polytrack may have been playing fast. But subsequent times over the evening were more in line with what might have been expected for each class, even a touch slower. And when Demi Song was assigned a Beyer Speed Figure of 91, it underlined the exceptional quality of his effort. The next-best Beyer on the card was a 76, earned by Questuary, winner of the 1 1/16-mile Eternal Search for Ontario-sired 3-year-old fillies in 1:47.01.

"I think horses seem to be running in the times they should run in," said David Willmot, president and chief executive officer of Woodbine Entertainment Group, midway through Wednesday's program. "I don't think times matter; it's how they come back, how they enjoy it."

The Polytrack surface also seemed to play fair to runners of all styles. Front-runners, stalkers, and closers shared the spoils.

"So far, it's playing fair," said Evans. "Horses are winning from on the pace and coming out of it. The jocks are happy with it."

Woodbine is the second North American track to race on Polytrack, joining Turfway Park, which hosted the first such meeting beginning last September. Woodbine is distinct, however, in that its conversion to the artificial surface was made during the course of a live meeting.

"Nobody thought we could do it," said Willmot. "It's amazing that we could do it in seven weeks, while we were racing."

The Polytrack project, directed by Gerri Kretschmer, began when the cushion of Woodbine's former one-mile dirt surface was transferred to the inner seven-furlong Standardbred oval on July 4. Racing on that temporary inner track began July 8 and wound up last Sunday. Training began on the Polytrack surface last Sunday, and there was an official ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday, which took place about 15 minutes before the first race.

"We believe it's the most important thing that's being done today for the safety and welfare of the horse and rider," said Willmot, addressing a gather of Woodbine customers and employees. "The incidence of injuries and breakdowns is dramatically less."

Willmot said he believes the cost of the project, which could approach $11 million by the time the Standardbred track is returned to its original state, also will be justified.

"We should save $750,000 a year in maintenance costs," said Willmot. "And along with increased field sizes and wagering revenue, we're hoping it pays for itself in five years."