08/27/2006 11:00PM

New era begins at Woodbine

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Michael Burns Photo Ltd.
Horses train over Woodbine's new Polytrack surface Sunday. Wednesday will be the first race day on the track.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario - When a field of six breaks from the gate at approximately 6:50 p.m. on Wednesday evening, Woodbine will become just the second racetrack in North America to race over a Polytrack surface.

The Polytrack opened for training on Sunday, and the finishing touches, including the outer rail and timer hookups, will be completed prior to Wednesday's ribbon-cutting.

A total of 84 horses worked over the new surface on Sunday, and another 140 on Monday.

The first stage of the Polytrack project began back on July 4 when the surface of the former dirt track was moved to the seven-furlong Standardbred oval, which has served as a temporary home for the Thoroughbreds here since July 8. There is still more work to be done, said Gerri Kretschmer, project manager for the Polytrack operation.

"Obviously the cushion's new, so we need to continue working it and getting it settled down," said Kretschmer. "We've got some cushion still to install at the end of the walkways and the tunnels. That's all going to happen over the next couple of weeks.

"Plus, we've got to take that temporary Thoroughbred track and get it converted back to a harness track within the next three or four weeks."

By the time the inner track has been resurfaced for the Standardbred meeting, which begins Oct. 9, the overall cost of the Polytrack project will have surpassed $10 million.

Balancing that expenditure will be a significant decrease in track maintenance costs, particularly as the surface will not require watering.

Woodbine officials have said the move to Polytrack was predicated on the well-being of the horse, with a decrease in injuries among the expected benefits.

"It's nice to see technology benefiting the Thoroughbreds directly," said Emma-Jayne Wilson, leading rider at the Woodbine meeting. "This is my first experience with Polytrack, and I've been out on quite a few horses already. I'm very happy with it - it's revolutionary, it's amazing.

"It's everything they said it was going to be. It's a nice, even, consistent surface. Horses seem to skip over it, but they still come back blowing. I think it will get them plenty fit."

Reade Baker, leading trainer at the meeting, and the well-traveled Roger Attfield both are familiar with Polytrack surfaces in Kentucky and agree that Woodbine's seems faster.

Baker trained horses this summer at Turfway Park, which last September became the first North American track to conduct a Polytrack meeting. He also used Keeneland's Polytrack training surface this spring. Keeneland will race over Polytrack for the first time this fall.

"It's quicker than Keeneland or Turfway," said Baker, who had a number of workers over the new surface here Sunday and Monday. "As each track goes, they're refining it. They're probably trying to adapt it to the American game.

"But, the horses do seem to like it. Like when they try turf for the first time, they seem to stride out farther. It puts them in a buoyant mood; it all seems positive."

Attfield, who also is familiar with Keeneland's Polytrack training surface, sent out a number of horses to work over Polytrack here Monday morning.

"It's faster here than Keeneland," said Attfield. "I think it's settled in very well. It looks like they're training very nicely over it. But then, I've never seen a horse train badly over a Polytrack, really. They all enjoy training over it."

Woodbine's version of Polytrack is tailored to accommodate the varying climate at a meeting that begins in April and ends in December. Its color, brown, is darker than the other Polytracks in use, and gives it the look of a regular dirt surface.

"Most of the tracks are done with white silica sand," said Kretschmer. "In our case, we thought it would be beneficial to try to have the track a brown, traditional racing surface color. So, we actually we went out and sourced a sand that was already brown to start with.

"It also helps with the cameras. A white track tends to wash out on film. And with 60 to 70 percent of the business offtrack, you want to have as good a visual product as possible.

"It's good for Woodbine," Kretschmer said. "It sets it apart."