03/20/2007 11:00PM

Polytrack progress at Del Mar


DEL MAR, Calif. - It doesn't matter if the stands are deserted, the local streets are empty, and the wind is whipping chilly off the Pacific Ocean. It was the first day of spring, and the Del Mar Fairgrounds was a happening place.

The jumping crowd has gathered in strength for this week's Palms Classic Horse Show, with $50,000 in prize money up for grabs on Saturday in the World Cup Grand Prix.

Not to be outdone, the leaping hounds have a turn in the spotlight on Friday in the $1,000 Dog Agility Speed Challenge, and if you haven't seen one of these, you've missed a hoot. Talk about puppy uppers.

The massive, multi-purpose building that housed such horses as The Tin Man and Brother Derek during last year's Del Mar Thoroughbred Club meet is now home to the facilities of the Del Mar Sports Center, offering basketball, volleyball, indoor soccer, and batting cages to those who need to remain competitive in the off-season.

Next door, in an equally huge hangar of a structure that served last summer as home to the horses of Doug O'Neill and Patrick Gallagher, among others, the Fred Hall Fish, Tackle, and Boat Show has set up shop with a fleet of drop-dead gorgeous watercraft, including the Century 2400 Walk Around (in Fighting Lady Yellow) with its V-Tech hull, stainless steel gunwhale rod holders, 140-gallon gas tank and twin Yamaha 150 outboard bad boys, perched gracefully on an aluminum AquaCradle and parked precisely where Lava Man lives when he does business at Del Mar.

But all that was small potatoes compared to the real show taking place out on the racetrack, just outside the boat show doors, where a crew of road-building maniacs was busy with the installation of Del Mar's new Polytrack racing surface.

As of Wednesday, about a third of the 16,000 tons of Polytrack material had been spread on the backstretch, the clubhouse turn, and the seven-furlong chute, where show horses are already using it for practice jumps. A fleet of dump trucks has been shuttling back and forth from the Polytrack brewery located in the backstretch parking lot, whipping U-turns and tipping their loads on top of the asphalt-coated layer of small rocks serving as the upper portion of the base. Small utility tractors equipped with tank-like treads then scoop, spread, and compact the Polytrack surface, while men on the ground continuously probe the topping to assure its seven-inch depth.

"They tried blading it," said Craig Fravel, Del Mar's executive vice president, as he observed the work from the clubhouse turn perimeter road. "And it would have gone faster. But they couldn't get it even."

Time is always an issue with racetrack projects - look out, wet paint! - but the Del Mar Polytrack installation has been rambling along at a steady pace since February, taking advantage of the Southern California drought to be very much on the schedule that Fravel and his staff have in mind.

"The plan is to have horses on the surface by April 21," Fravel said. "I feel like the kid with a Christmas present that he can't wait to open."

Fravel was among the first wave of racetrack executives to embrace the synthetic surface technology, and lobbied hard to bring it to Del Mar. Since the Del Mar project was green-lighted, there have been positive reviews coming in from horsemen training and racing over such synthetically treated sand at several tracks, but there were also maintenance issues arising with both the Cushion Track laid at Hollywood Park and the Polytrack surface at Turfway Park. Fravel was hardly discouraged.

"The technology is still more art than science," he said. "Although it seems that it can be harder to maintain when the weather gets cold, because it tends to compact.

"Remember, we're talking about sub-freezing temperatures at Turfway," Fravel added. "I'm sure that can present a challenge. And the surface will act differently going from cooler mornings to warmer afternoons. But for us, the extremes aren't really a factor. In some ways, we might have the perfect climate for this kind of track."

Aesthetically, the surface will be a shock to fans who are accustomed to Del Mar's dark brown, loamy soil. Once the fine-grained silica sand is mixed with tiny bits of tire rubber and strands of old 1970's shag carpet - well, that's what it looks like- it comes out kind of a salt-and-pepper, dishwater gray, flecked with festive touches of color.

In a further change to the layout, the venerable hedge rimming the clubhouse turn has been removed and replaced by a waist-high block wall and a cyclone fence, giving the view from the stands a decidedly industrial profile. Don't look for swaying palms to be planted soon.

"As far as I'm concerned, what we're doing to the racing surface is beautiful, in terms of safety for our horses and riders," Fravel said. "We can worry about landscaping later. Anyway, it was an ugly hedge."