04/24/2007 11:00PM

Polytrack passes first test on a rainy day one

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CHICAGO - Last summer, horsemen and track officials alike shuddered over any rainy morning at Arlington Park. Arlington was going through a rash of well-publicized catastrophic breakdowns, and many felt that injuries were more likely to occur, as so often is the case, on a muddy day.

But there are no more muddy days at Arlington. And the only butterflies anyone felt on a rainy Wednesday morning at the track were over how Arlington's new synthetic racing surface would stand up to its first day of training.

Call it a trial by rain, not fire, and call the Arlington Polytrack a first-day success.

"I was up at the apron and at the outriders' shed to see if I would get beat up or kicked or something," said Javier Barajas, Arlington's track maintenance supervisor.

Barajas has gotten to intimately know the unusual gray track surface, which is littered with bits of colored fiber. And even with more than an inch of rain falling on it Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, the new track stood up fine to the first day of training.

"All the people who went out there really liked it," said Barajas.

"It seemed fine," said trainer Christine Janks, who sent out the first two horses - including stakes-class sprinter Fifteen Rounds - on Wednesday. "I've raced at Keeneland, and it seemed like that. They all went over it really well. I had one horse the exercise rider said just jumped up and down - just perplexed by the new surface - but that was it."

Arlington's Polytrack seems like Keeneland's because it is a duplicate of the Polytrack used on the main track there. "I've trained at Keeneland on it, and this is exactly like it," said trainer Steve Hobby, who exercises some of his own horses. "It's soft and springy. You can hardly feel them touch the ground."

Barajas said Hobby had described the track to him as feeling "like cotton." That feeling came on a day when the surface had taken more water than at any point since a four-inch snowstorm in March.

"I was here before training hours watching the track to make sure there was no water standing on it or anything," Barajas said. "They're known to hold water sometimes. This was one of the biggest rains we had, and it didn't hold any water. It's draining so good it was even surprising to the Polytrack people who were here."

Barajas's crew finished laying down the surface last Friday, and began turning it over with roto-tillers and power harrows during the weekend. Beginning Sunday, the crew started harrowing the track with gallop masters, a device that penetrates the surface more superficially. That work was completed Tuesday night, and all Barajas had to do Wednesday morning was sit back, watch, and hope for the best.

"On the dirt, a morning like this would have been way, way different," said Janks.

Arlington's 2007 meet begins May 4.