04/26/2005 11:00PM

New Turfway surface attracts deep praise

Polytrack, already in use at a training track at Keeneland (above), will be ready by the start of Turfway's fall meet beginning Sept. 7.

Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., has begun work to install a synthetic racing surface already in use at a training track at Keeneland Race Course. The surface, called Polytrack, is expected to be ready by the start of Turfway's fall meet beginning Sept. 7.

Officials of Turfway and Keeneland said the surface, a blend of recycled rubber, synthetic fibers, and several natural materials that sits on an intricate drainage system, will be safer for horses and jockeys, cheaper and easier to maintain, and potentially more consistent for horseplayers. The surface materials are being manufactured at Keeneland under a partnership with a British company, Martin Collins Surfaces and Footings. Keeneland is a one-third owner of Turfway Park.

"This surface is phenomenal," said Bob Elliston, the president of Turfway, at a press conference Wednesday on a hill overlooking the Keeneland training track. "I'm not sure if there has been an introduction of anything in racing that has been so universally lauded."

Nick Nicholson, the president of Keeneland, said that Keeneland is also seriously considering installing the surface for its main track.

"I would not be surprised if we were at this same spot next year making the same announcement," Nicholson said, adding Keeneland officials want to monitor how the surface holds up under racing conditions at Turfway first.

Synthetic surfaces have been tried at United States tracks before, notably at Remington Park in Oklahoma. That surface, called Equitrack - a blend of petroleum-coated sand particles - was scrapped three years after being installed in 1988, largely because of complaints from horsemen that it was uneven.

Officials at the press conference stressed the differences between the materials used for Remington's synthetic surface and those used for the surface at Keeneland, citing the successful use of the Polytrack surface at six training centers in England, including Epsom, and at two racetracks.

Elliston cited the harsh winters in northern Kentucky as a primary reason for installing a synthetic track. Turfway holds two meetings, a one-month fall meeting and a three-month winter meeting, from the beginning of January until April. This year, Turfway canceled 11 days of live racing because of weather conditions during the winter meet.

"This will allow us to race continually through those winter months," Elliston said. "The surface is going to be in perfect shape every day."

Elliston declined to comment on how much it would cost to install the new track, but said Turfway hoped to recoup its investment within "four of five years" through reduced maintenance costs and increased betting revenues.

According to Keeneland officials, the synthetic surface requires very little maintenance, in contrast to a dirt track, which must be continually scraped, graded, and sealed to manage the water content and consistency. Nicholson said that Keeneland has not added a drop of water to the training track since the surface was installed last September, and that for maintenance, the track runs a tractor-pulled circular grader over the course once a day in order to mix the top six inches of material. The track never closed for training over the winter, Nicholson said.

The surface has been overwhelmingly praised by trainers, exercise riders, and jockeys, who have cited its resiliency, kindness to horses, and ability to withstand adverse weather conditions. On some mornings during the Keeneland fall meet, the training track has been more popular for training than the main track. Some trainers, however, have also said that it has been difficult to discern whether horses get as fit over the track as when training over a dirt surface.

Because the track has not been used in this country under actual racing conditions, there is still some question about how horses will respond when running in packs at full speed. In Great Britain, the surface has been installed at both Lingfield Park and Wolverhampton, two all-weather courses that are open during the winter.

Martin Collins, the developer of the surface, said that since the synthetic surface was installed at Lingfield five years ago, only one day of racing has been canceled, and that was due to high winds, not the racing surface itself. The surface was installed at Wolverhampton last year, and no race cards have been canceled, Collins said.

Collins also said that the surface may eliminate the front-running bias at Turfway's winter meet, because the surface is much softer than dirt and does not freeze. Elliston agreed with Collins.

"A lot of times at winter tracks you have to use very coarse sand, and you end up getting a situation where if you're not in the first three positions, you've got no shot," Elliston said. "With those hard clumps of dirt hitting them in the face, some horses just give up. With this, it hits the horses in the face, it doesn't sting, and I think you're going to see them all come running at the end."

Officials said they had not yet decided how to rate the Turfway track. Dirt courses can be rated in a number of ways - such as fast, good or muddy - to reflect the hardness and water content. In Britain, Collins said, the Polytrack in use at Lingfield and Wolverhampton is rated "standard," a special designation not used at other tracks or for other surfaces.