08/15/2013 9:11AM

Bob Pandolfo: Talking track surfaces with Dan Coon

Derick Giwner
Horses race over the indigenous red clay at the Red Mile in Lexington, Ky.

Dan Coon designs and builds racing surfaces.  Dan and his brother Greg are both active in the family business started by their father, Hall of Famer Chuck Coon, who commenced working in the industry in the 1950's. They designed the track where the Little Brown Jug is raced, Hoosier, the Meadowlands, Lexington (the Red Mile), Pompano and many others.

We spoke a little about Pocono Downs, one of the few tracks that Coon has never worked on.

[DRF HARNESS: Sign Up for the FREE DRF Harness Newsletter Today!]

"You hear good things about that surface," Coon said. "A lot depends on the material that's available. Pocono has that red surface and that comes from the material they get from one of the quarries in that area. The material and the particle size, angular or round, have to be evaluated when you build a racing surface. They're fortunate to have access to that material, which provides a good cushion and a good base. At many tracks, the tracks purchase material from the department of transportation. Sometimes if an area doesn't have good dirt, we have to find material elsewhere; bring it in and do some blending. The available material can be quite different. For instance, in Chicago, they have limestone quarries.

"Of course you have to maintain it. Pocono is similar to the Red Mile, which is a track we built. The Red Mile has that red clay, which is indigenous to that site. It's a great surface to race on, fast and safe, but it can get a little juicy when it rains. You see the same thing at Pocono. Watch how dirty the drivers get on a rainy night there as opposed to some of the other tracks. That's why track maintenance is so important. It's not enough to just put in a good surface."

Coon feels that the biggest difference in the tracks today as compared to several decades ago is the banking.

"Overall I think that more tracks have good banking now, and personally I feel that it makes for a more competitive race and a safer track," he said. "Turns with a tight radius and flat turns that are not well banked lead to more lameness."

We talked about the faster times in harness racing, but Coon said that when he builds a track his priority is safety.

"Generally speaking, it's probably tougher for trainers to keep their horses sound today because of the faster times that they go," he said. "That's why it's important to maintain the cushion. Most tracks will lose some of the cushion when there's a torrential downpour. The sooner you put that material back the better. At the Red Mile we'll go out and add material in between races if we have to. The same thing with snow. During the winter you do have to scrape the snow off the track and with the snow goes some of the cushion. The tracks have to make sure that they have an ample supply of material to put back on the track."

Coon has also worked on many Thoroughbred surfaces for different training centers and racetracks, including several tracks that ran both Thoroughbreds and harness races - Hawthorne, The Meadowlands, Indiana Downs, Beulah Park, Delaware Park, Finger Lakes, Hastings Park, and Tampa Bay Downs.

I asked Coon about the increase in breakdowns in Thoroughbred racing and he offered some of his views.

"In my opinion, they should not race with a rail," he said. "It's dangerous for both the horses and riders. When we suggested eliminating the hubrail at harness tracks years ago it was met with a lot of opposition. Horsemen resist change; that I can tell you. But fortunately the sport did remove the hubrail and it's a lot safer. I've spoken to jockeys who believe that it would be hard to control the horses if the rail wasn't there, but they train around the cones all the time with no problem.

"The Thoroughbred starting gate is also dangerous and a lot of horses get injured at the start, either in the gate or by accelerating out of a flat-footed start. I was at Keeneland a few years ago, we were testing pacers on the synthetic surface there. I tried to get Thoroughbred trainers to let me start a race with the mobile gate but they refused. It will probably never change, but you don't need to race Thoroughbreds out of a gate like that.

"Another factor is the six-furlong and shorter one-turn sprint races, which are tough on horses. They have a few hundred feet to hit top speed then they slam into a turn. Generally speaking, I think that horses will stay sounder if they race more in routes than sprints. And with training, American horses usually run the same way when they race and train. Their training should really vary, train them clockwise some days and counter-clockwise other days, like they do in Dubai, to balance the stress on their legs."

Coon stressed that the key to keeping pacers and trotters sound is the cushion.

"Even though the cushion on harness tracks isn't that deep, it has to be maintained," he said. "The tracks that do a good job of maintaining the cushion are going to have sounder horses."

Coon experimented with racing pacers over the synthetic surface at Keeneland several years ago. A synthetic surface would slow the races down and give the closers a better chance. It could be a good idea for harness racing. I asked him if he felt that a synthetic racetrack could be used for harness racing.

"Yes," he said, "you can race Standardbreds on a synthetic surface. But when we tried it at Keeneland it probably added five seconds to the times, and the breeders didn't like that. They said, 'Hey, we have to sell these horses.' But to a gambler or racing fan, what's more important, a competitive race, or a fast time? I think that's the question that has to be asked."

Dan and his brother Greg also work as starters. They both work the Red Mile and Greg is the starter at the Delaware Fair. The start of a harness race is something that isn't talked about much but Coon thinks it should be.

"It used to be that if a driver had his horse off the gate at the start, it was unacceptable," he said. "It clearly states in the USTA rulebook, Rule 16, that every horse must be on the gate at the start. Now you see races where some of the horses are a couple of lengths off the gate, especially from the outside posts. And, you also see drivers timing the start."

Just to clarify, when a driver "times the start," he keeps a horse off the gate then rushes up late and tries to get an advantage by leaving as soon as the gate opens from a running start. This is unfair and a violation of Rule 16.

You see this at several tracks. When Maywood Park in Chicago began to start the races 200 feet before the one-mile marker a few years ago, it was done to give the outside horses a fairer chance of leaving. The idea was to make the racing more competitive. This made it tougher to win from post 1. But some of the drivers figured a way around that, which was to lag off the gate from post 1, then rush up at the last second. I haven't seen the drivers doing this at Maywood lately, probably because the judges started to fine drivers who timed the start.

Coon has used a computer program to automatically control the speed of the starting gate and feels it would be beneficial for all tracks to use a computerized start.

"We used it at Pompano when I was the starter and it worked great," Coon said. "It makes for a fairer, more consistent start because the car goes at the same speed every race and the race starts at the exact same spot. I don't like uneven starts and I don't think gamblers like them, either. I really would like to see better starts throughout the industry. All horses should be right up on the gate at the start, no exceptions, and timed starts should not be allowed."

Dan Coon is in the process of analyzing The Meadows harness track, which will be resurfaced this month.

"Right now we're measuring the cross slopes and banks and evaluating the material. In August we'll re-grade it," Coon said.

"The Meadows runs all year long," said Coon, "and that makes is tough to maintain a track surface. Year-round racing brings a whole new set of challenges. But the management of The Meadows has the right attitude. They don't want to be second to anyone. They want the best surface they can possibly have."

Coon also mentioned that he doesn't just come in and make quick decisions.

"I believe in communication and listening," he said. "I've talked to Hall of Fame driver Dave Palone, as well as Dick Stillings, Mike Wilder and some of the trainers like Randy Bendis, Norm Parker and Rich Gillock to get their input on how they feel about the surface.”

To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.