Updated on 09/17/2011 11:14PM

Polytrack makes its debut

Patrick Lang/Lang Photography
An exhibition race was run over the Polytrack at Turfway Park on Aug. 24.

FLORENCE, Ky. - A new era in North American racing will begin Wednesday night at Turfway Park when Polytrack, the revolutionary racing surface, makes its long-awaited debut.

Polytrack is a wax-coated synthetic surface made up of recycled rubber, polypropylene fibers, and silica sand. Polytrack has played to the rave reviews of horsemen since it was first introduced in the late 1980's in England by its inventor, Martin Collins. When several exhibition races were run over it at Turfway on Aug. 24, horsemen were unanimous in their praise of the new surface.

Turfway, which is co-owned and managed by the Keeneland Association, has been dogged for years by weather-related cancellations during wintertime, a situation that prompted the track to try something bold. For the last year or so, Polytrack has been in use on the five-furlong training track at Keeneland, where officials became so enamored of the surface that they are now a vested partner in the track's manufacturer, Martin Collins International, and are seriously considering installing Polytrack on their 1 1/16-mile main track. Officials at Del Mar also have said they are considering switching to Polytrack.

The introduction of Polytrack represents a dramatic shift in long-held beliefs about conventional dirt tracks, and Turfway officials are extremely proud to be at the forefront of the new movement.

"There is an unbelievable level of excitement around here about Polytrack," said Turfway president Bob Elliston. "The horsemen love it, and our staff and customers are very eager to see horses racing over it for the first time Wednesday night."

A seven-inch thick cushion of Polytrack, which has a light-grayish color tone, is laid over a drainage system that Turfway is confident will virtually eliminate its problem with cancellations. Under the Polytrack layer sits a

10-inch base consisting of porous macadam, a clean stone base, and longitudinal and cross drains.

Keeneland has not disclosed the installation cost of the new surface but said the surface might pay for itself within several years because of reduced maintenance costs and fewer cancellations. The weather-resistant surface does not require watering or harrowing, and Collins, who attended the Aug. 24 exhibitions, said there is minimal cost involved in surface erosion. The familiar circling of tractors between races will no longer occur, since the surface requires highly infrequent leveling or smoothing.

Probably the most ennobling feature of Polytrack is its impervious nature to rain.

"After a real heavy rain one morning, I saw standing water on it," said trainer Jeff Greenhill, whose mid-sized stable is based at Turfway. "So I stomped my foot down right next to the puddle, and poof, it was gone. The drainage system is amazingly efficient. The stuff is great, I'll tell you."

Horsemen also are encouraged by data provided by Collins that strongly suggests the cushioning effect of Polytrack helps reduce breakdowns and injuries. Polytrack also yields very little kickback, something that long had been problematic with the old Turfway surface.

Understandably, handicappers are eager to see how the new surface will affect their wagering tendencies. Elliston said he and his staff will be closely monitoring business figures to determine whether horseplayers will take a wait-and-see position toward the new surface. In any case, James Willoughby, a British racing writer and handicapper who has made case studies of racing results over Polytrack at Lingfield and Wolverhampton in his home country, said during a Aug. 24 news conference at Turfway that come-from-behind horses might have a slight edge at the outset of competition.

"After a while, it tends to even out," he said.

Willoughby and some horsemen also say the nature of Polytrack is such that horses who perform best on grass may have a slight edge over horses who do best on dirt. Turfway's longtime race-caller and handicapper, Mike Battaglia, said he has heard a multitude of theories about Polytrack but will refrain from making his own conclusions until a telling number of races are run over the new surface.

"I think we will all be looking real close for any kind of bias or patterns that might develop," said Battaglia.

Some trainers said horses who have been training over Polytrack for the last few weeks might have an advantage over out-of-town horses, but historically, shippers from Churchill Downs have held a class edge over their Turfway-based counterparts, so making a definitive judgment in that category could prove difficult.

Recorded times over Polytrack may be a tad slower than what has been customary at Turfway. The three exhibition races, all run at five furlongs, yielded times of 1:03.20, 1:03.20, and 1:00.80. As an aside, one of the 1:03.20 winners, Tommy Panache, won the $40,000 Loyalty Stakes at Thistledown on Sunday in his first career start.

For the purposes of record-keeping, Elliston said existing track records at Turfway will be archived after Sept. 18, when Polytrack records will go into effect.

Andrew Beyer, whose Beyer Speed Figures are a staple in Daily Racing Form, has taken such an interest in the introduction of Polytrack to the American racing scene that he will personally compile and report figures for the entire Turfway meet, which runs through Oct. 6. Beyer normally employs a staff that compiles figures for the vast majority of North American tracks.