12/10/2009 12:00AM

NYRA tracks in good hands under Kozak


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Glen Kozak has one of those jobs where it's virtually impossible to please everyone most of the time.

As director of racing surfaces for the New York Racing Association, Kozak and his staff's performance affects horsemen, track management, and horseplayers, groups that are often at cross purposes. Listening to representatives from all groups, however, Kozak has earned rave reviews since taking over for John Passero in September 2008.

"Night and day," trainer Mike Hushion said when asked to describe the differences the last 15 months. "The track is much better, communication is much better. The last go-round was a disaster. Millions of dollars worth of horses got physical problems they shouldn't have had."

Several trainers echoed Hushion's sentiment, saying they have seen an improvement in track and backstretch maintenance, the latter being a job that also has fallen under Kozak's auspices.

"Frankly, I've found Glen to be a breath of fresh air," said Linda Rice, who this year became the first female to win a trainer's title at Saratoga. "He's really on top of things. He's accessible. He's been terrific. Last winter, I was having problems with barn maintenance and things of that nature, and I was delighted with his response. As far as track condition, I feel like he's done a good job in that area, too."

P.J. Campo, NYRA's director of racing, said Kozak's accessibility to horsemen and his willingness to work with them have been the keys to his success.

"Those two things go a long way," Campo said. "He's always there, on site. Trainers have his phone number, and it's not always his way. He listens to everybody. If we have a bad racetrack as far as weather-wise, him and I are talking at 4:30, 5 o'clock."

That was evident Wednesday morning, when, according to Kozak, he received an e-mail from Campo at 5:09 a.m. to discuss the nasty weather that hit the Metropolitan area. With more than 1 1/2 inches of rain having fallen by 7 a.m. and with winds beyond 30 miles per hour expected, the decision was made by 7:30 a.m. to cancel Wednesday's card.

"I talk to P.J. more than I talk to my wife," Kozak said.

Horseplayers have found the tracks in New York to have played very fair since Kozak's arrival. Aqueduct's inner track, a notorious haven for speed horses, was less so last winter and through the first week this winter.

"While I certainly enjoy seeing a track bias, as an everyday player, I feel having too many leads to less value and fewer plays," said a horseplayer named "Cigar Ron," who says he wagers in the middle six-figure range annually. "In my opinion, this maintenance crew has found just the right medium."

Kozak, 39, came to New York following similar jobs in track maintenance at Suffolk Downs in New England and Laurel Park in Maryland. He is responsible for six dirt tracks (two each at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga) and six turf tracks (three at Saratoga, two at Belmont, and one at Aqueduct). Kozak oversees a department that includes track superintendent Jerry Porcelli and assistant superintendent Pete Sinacori.

"With the amount of racetracks we have to handle, no one person can take care of this," Kozak said. "This is a team effort with what we're trying to do."

When Kozak began in fall 2008, the one complaint he constantly heard was that the track was too hard. The tracks were sealed tight on a nightly basis, even when rain was not forecast. When the tracks would be opened in the morning, they would sometimes be pretty hard, which increased the potential for injuries.

Kozak said NYRA made some adjustments in the equipment it uses, and more time is spent on opening the tracks up in the morning following a night when they have been sealed.

"A few little simple adjustments, and we made some headway there," Kozak said.

Kozak said NYRA now uses four-wheeled tractors and is phasing out the three-wheeled models, commonly referred to as "swamp buggies,'' which have tires that are 5 feet wide.

"With the smaller tractor tires, it gives you a little bit more flexibility to move your tire," he said. "With the swamp buggies, you're stuck three feet off the rail. If you do start to get a mark or something, you don't have the flexibility of getting it out. With a tractor tire, you're able to position the tractor a little bit easier, change the position of the float on the tractor. It helps with the maintenance."

In November 2006, after three cards on Aqueduct's main track were canceled and another three were moved to the inner track, Passero said the clay base of the track was deteriorating. Kozak said he has not seen any deterioration but did say, "What's happened here in the past is, when the cushion gets infiltrated with water, it can be a challenge to manage."

Kozak said his biggest challenge has been maintaining Belmont Park's two turf courses. NYRA ran 229 turf races during the spring-summer meet and 118 in the fall. Between the two meets, more than 100 races scheduled for the turf were rained off to the main track. Kozak said that since his arrival, NYRA has resodded a significant portion of Belmont's turf courses and did some drainage work, which allowed him to put the rails out 27 feet when necessary to protect the inside parts of the course.

As far as synthetic surfaces are concerned, Kozak said he hasn't been around them enough to know how they would play in New York.

"Seems like there's a pretty big learning curve with them now," he said. "As far as our weather, I don't know how it would work out."