04/19/2007 12:00AM

Polytrack installation all but complete

Benoit & Associates
Arlington plans to have the installation of its Polytrack surface completed by Friday.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Arlington Park, just around the corner from the May 4 opening of its 2007 race meet, plans to complete the installation of its new synthetic racing surface Friday, and the new Polytrack oval is expected to open for training on Wednesday.

Javier Barajas, Arlington's track maintenance supervisor, said on Tuesday that the project is running ahead of schedule. Contracted workers began laying the drainage system and stone and macadam base over the winter, and as of Tuesday Barajas's crew had spread about 18,000 of the 20,000 tons of Polytrack required to cover the racetrack. The entire 1 1/8-mile oval except for a narrow strip next to the outside fence had been covered, with only a portion of the chute used for one-mile races still to be finished.

Officials from Keeneland and Martin Collins Inc., the Polytrack suppliers, were scheduled to inspect the surface Wednesday, taking measurements to make sure a uniform seven-inch depth had been achieved before the surface undergoes final preparations for its first exposure to horses.

Arlington decided last fall to switch from a traditional dirt track to a synthetic surface, a move spurred in part by a 2006 season marred by a rash of fatal breakdowns. The track also hopes the surface, which is believed to ease the stress of racing and training on a horse's body, will help boost field size at the meet.

"We ran more numbers than you can shake a stick at," said Arlington president Roy Arnold. "A half-a-horse in field size is worth about $50,000 in handle [per race] to us."

Arnold said the project, which had an estimated cost of some $10 million when it began, went smoothly after an initial glitch. Keeneland and Martin Collins set up a Polytrack manufacturing plant about 100 miles from Arlington in Streator, Ill., but Arlington rejected the first batches of Polytrack it received because, Arnold said, "the wax wasn't adhering properly."

The problem was traced to low temperatures in the production facility, and once the space was heated the Polytrack turned out fine, Arnold said.

Along the way, Arlington also discovered that its racetrack, which had long been listed at 623,000 square feet, actually is 711,000 square feet, meaning more Polytrack than had been anticipated was required to cover it.

The Arlington track hasn't been radically re-graded but changes were made to the banking on the turns. The slope from the inside rail to the crown of the track remains the same, 4 percent, but a 2 percent negative slope from the crown to the outside rail has been turned into a 2 percent slope upward. That alteration required that the outside rail be elevated, a project that's in progress.

Arlington's Polytrack duplicates the surface used at Keeneland, and Arlington's maintenance crew has spent time there learning how to care for the surface, Arnold said. Arlington also has retained track-surface analyst Mick Peterson, who inspected the dirt track last year, to regularly monitor the Polytrack this season, examining changes brought about by moisture and temperature.

"We'd like to bring to the process a littler more science," Arnold said.

The new racetrack also requires different maintenance equipment, including sets of flotation tires that cost about $17,000 per tractor, according to Barajas. Three types of new equipment are key to maintaining the track. Roto-tillers penetrate most deeply into the surface, and are used every one to two weeks, Barajas said. Power harrows dig in more superficially than the tillers. And a grooming device called a gallop master is used on a daily basis to fluff the track after it's compressed from use. A 10-ton roller created the current seven-inch surface depth, and sometime later this week the top couple inches of Polytrack will be fluffed up and readied for actual use.