09/12/2004 11:00PM

Horses try out new synthetic surface

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Keeneland Racecourse allowed a limited number of horses on Monday to gallop over its new training track, a synthetic racing surface that Keeneland promises will be far safer for horses than the dirt and sand tracks in widespread use across the United States.

The surface, which was installed over the past three months under the supervision of its inventor, Martin Collins of England, is a gray and black wax-coated mixture of natural and synthetic materials, including recycled rubber and soft, multi-stranded fibers resembling tightly wound yarn. Keeneland officials, who have struck a joint venture with Collins to develop the track for use in the United States, said the surface would greatly reduce training injuries, and, should the surface be adopted for use on the racetrack as Keeneland officials hope, would prove to be more fair and consistent for horseplayers.

On Monday, perhaps a dozen horses were allowed to use the new track, a five-eighths oval adjacent to several barns that house yearlings entered in Keeneland's massive September sale, which started Monday. Nick Nicholson, the president of Keeneland, said general use of the training track by stabled horsemen at Keeneland would begin at the end of the week, after many of the jittery sale yearlings have been shipped off the grounds.

John Ward, the Kentucky-based trainer, sent two horses over the track on both Sunday and Monday, including a finicky 2-year-old that he said had had problems adjusting to other racing surfaces.

"That 2-year-old, if he gets on the wrong surface, he'll let you know," Ward said. "But he had no problems whatsoever. He was very comfortable."

Keeneland Racecourse, located in the heart of horse country, would seem to be a less-than-ideal racetrack to debut a new racing surface, much less a surface that is partly synthetic. Opinions in central Kentucky have been handed down as fact for generations, and change does not come easily in the conservative Bluegrass, especially where horses are concerned.

Synthetic tracks also have a less-than-stellar reputation in the United States. In 1988, Remington Park in Oklahoma opened its inaugural meet with a sand-based synthetic track with components that were coated with a petroleum product, but the surface was scrapped within three years after complaints from horsemen that the surface was patchy and contributed to breakdowns.

"It was very difficult to get an even-depth cushion on it," said Charlie Wooden, an official for the Oklahoma Horsemen's Association who worked with track management on the surface. "You got streaks of soft spots and then streaks of hard spots, and you had horses hurting themselves."

The designers of the Keeneland track said that the sophisticated manufacturing and mixing process of the surface creates a highly consistent surface that does not lead to hard patches. Still, Collins, who installed the first "polytrack," as it is known, in the late 1980's for a private training yard in England, acknowledged on Monday that getting U.S. horsemen to accept the new surface would be a hard sell.

"In England, you have to remember, everything is tradition, too, and when something like this comes in, you have a lot of people against it," Collins said. "They don't want to accept change. But that's why I think this is the perfect place to do it. To be honest, I think it's going to change racing in America."

Collins's track has been installed at two all-weather racetracks in England, including one, Lingfield, that had previously used the same surface as Remington. Another dozen training facilities in Europe have installed the surface or are in the middle on installing it. Juddmonte Farms in Kentucky has also contracted to build a polytrack, Collins said.

Supporters of the track say that the surface drastically reduces catastrophic injuries and everyday wear-and-tear on joints, but Collins acknowledged that no scientific studies had been done to support that contention. Supporters also say that the surface needs virtually no maintenance, and that it can withstand heavy rain, freezing temperatures, or blistering heat without the composition or depth of the surface changing substantially.

The cushion, spongy to the touch, is seven inches deep. As horses galloped over the track Monday, their hooves sank about two inches into the surface, which slightly re-formed after the hooves had struck. Under the cushion is a four- to six-inch mix of tarmac nuggets, and under that layer is a six-inch strata of stones surrounding perforated drainage pipes.

The layers are designed to allow water to seep down into the pipes, an engineering feat that precludes the use of a crest running down the middle of the track. Current U.S. racing surfaces use a crest to allow water to drain to either side of the surface, a gravity-induced system that can create fast or dead portions on the track.

"I can tell you that it's much better racing for the wagering public," Collins said of the synthetic surface.

"The jockey can ride tactically on this surface, and horses that should win do win," he said.

Keeneland officials would not disclose how much the surface cost to manufacture and install. Julie Balog, a Keeneland spokesperson, said the surface would "pay for itself" after several years because of the minimal maintenance workload.

Nicholson said Keeneland officials would spend the next several months monitoring the reaction of horsemen to the surface. But he said Keeneland hopes the surface could be expanded from morning training regimens to afternoon racing competition.

"We'll continue to look at it, evaluate it, and consider the input from owners, trainers, and jockeys," Nicholson said. "We'll decide where we go from there, but we really think we're onto something here."