05/30/2006 11:00PM

Fair Hill going synthetic

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Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., where Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was based prior to his injury in the Preakness Stakes, will install an all-weather synthetic surface manufactured and designed by trainer Michael Dickinson, officials of Fair Hill and Dickinson's company, Tapeta Footings, announced on Wednesday.

When the project is completed this fall, Fair Hill will become the second public training facility in the U.S. to use a synthetic surface. Tapeta's surface and others like it have been praised by supporters for being safer to horses and easier and less expensive to maintain than conventional dirt tracks, especially in cold or wet weather.

Sally Goswell, the manager of Fair Hill, said Wednesday that the surface should be in place by October. Fair Hill will install the surface on the location of its seven-eighths-mile wood-chip course, and use the track exclusively during the winter, shutting down its one-mile dirt course. Approximately 460 horses are stabled at Fair Hill year-round, although that number declines to 400 during the winter, Goswell said.

The Tapeta surface is composed of sand, rubber pieces, and various fibers, all coated in water-repellent wax. The surface is placed over a porous layer of asphalt chunks that allows water to drain through the surface and off the track.

Fair Hill's decision to use the Tapeta surface adds momentum to a movement in the U.S. racing industry toward synthetic surfaces. Keeneland Racecourse installed the first synthetic surface at its training track in Lexington, Ky., in 2004, under a company called Polytrack that it owns with a British surface developer, and has since been shopping the surface to other tracks.

Last year, Turfway Park, which is part-owned by Keeneland, installed Polytrack on its racing surface. Both Keeneland and Woodbine Racecourse near Toronto have announced they will install the Polytrack surface on their main racetracks.

In the case of Woodbine, both Keeneland and Tapeta made pitches to Woodbine officials on the merits of their surfaces. Woodbine officials have said recently that they elected to use Polytrack because of Keeneland's experience with the surface at Turfway Park.

Turfway Park officials said after ending the track's winter-spring meet this year that three horses suffered catastrophic breakdowns over Polytrack, compared with 24 horses during the previous year's meet over the dirt surface. On a start-by-start basis, the decrease in catastrophic breakdowns was ten-fold.

Dickinson began formulating his Tapeta surface 12 years ago. After four years of experimentation, he installed the surface at his private training facility, Tapeta Farms, in North East, Md., not far from Fair Hill.

Goswell said that Fair Hill officials solicited quotes from both Keeneland and Tapeta. The facility decided on Dickinson's surface "largely because of the proximity of Tapeta" to Fair Hill, Goswell said. Dickinson manufactures the surface at his Maryland farm, and Keeneland manufactures Polytrack at its track in Kentucky.

Goswell said that the project will cost $1.7 million, although she noted that the wood-chip course where the surface will be installed already had a vertical drainage system in place similar to that used by the Tapeta surface. Previous estimates for installations at Turfway and Woodbine have run at least $6 million, well above the Tapeta price, although those installations are much more extensive than the Fair Hill project.

Nick Nicholson, the president of Keeneland, said Wednesday that he welcomed any new synthetic surface in the U.S., regardless of which company installs it.

"This is a cause that is becoming a movement, and that movement is toward safer racetracks," Nicholson said. "I support absolutely any development in that direction."