01/26/2006 1:00AM

Polytrack puts new twist on training

Patrick Lang/Lang Photography
Turfway Park is the only U.S. track to have Polytrack as its main racing surface, but as many as five training tracks have installed it.

In past years, 2-year-olds preparing to begin their racing careers for Niall O'Callaghan, the Kentucky-based trainer, would spend the winter in Ocala, Fla. That kind of strategy is typical of many trainers who choose not to fill racetrack stalls with 2-year-olds still months away from running.

But this winter, the O'Callaghan 2-year-olds, who total approximately 30, have joined his older horses in Kentucky. One of several reasons, he says, is the benefits of training over Polytrack, the partly synthetic racing surface that handles harsh weather so well that horses rarely miss a day of training because of poor track conditions.

Although only one U.S. racetrack has Polytrack as its main surface - Turfway Park in Florence, Ky. - as many as five training centers have added Polytrack since Keeneland first unveiled the product in the U.S. on its training track in the fall of 2004. These training centers include Hurricane Hall and Juddmonte Farm in Lexington, Ky.; Silverton Hill Farm in Springfield, Ky.; Highpointe Training Center in LaGrange, Ky.; and Pegasus Thoroughbred Center in Redmond, Wash.

The benefits of keeping his young horses in Kentucky are numerous, said O'Callaghan, who splits his stable between Highpointe and Skylight Training Center, which has a traditional dirt track. He saves money in shipping costs, he said, and "I get to be around them longer, which is more fun and more insightful."

Besides its ability to handle weather, the Polytrack surface is widely regarded as safer and more forgiving than dirt. The material, a gray and black wax-coated mixture of sand, rubber, and carpet fibers developed by Martin Collins, is believed to reduce concussion on horses' legs. For his entire stable of older horses and 2-year-olds, O'Callaghan said, "my injuries are down maybe 40 percent in December and January."

Keeneland, a co-owner of Turfway Park, is the U.S. distributor of Polytrack and is expected to install the surface on its main track for the 2006 fall meet, pending final approval. Officials from Del Mar, Woodbine, and Hollywood Park are also considering the surface. Keeneland's director of racing, Rogers Beasley, said he is in discussions with numerous training centers about adding the surface.

Beasley said he couldn't give a meaningful estimate for what it might cost to furnish a five-eighths-mile training track with Polytrack, noting that every situation is different because of the varying local costs of sand and other materials.

Bill Wahl, who owns and operates Skylight Training Center, about 20 miles northeast of Louisville, said he has had discussions with Keeneland about installing Polytrack. Wahl estimated it would cost $1 million for the material, the work on the project, and special drainage that the surface requires.

Wahl praised the surface and is encouraged by the lower maintenance costs and time associated with caring for it. Polytrack requires little or no water, for example. Wahl's current dirt track, which is well-regarded by O'Callaghan and other horsemen, requires hours of watering during the hot summer months.

One of the difficulties of Polytrack, as Wahl sees it, is the uncertainly of how the surface will hold up 10 to 15 years down the road. Another is the high initial cost. The distributors of Polytrack do not offer financing for track installations, Beasley said.

Wahl said his 102-stall training center is at full capacity, except at times during the winter, leaving him to wonder if he could add enough horses to recoup the cost of a Polytrack investment.

Niall Brennan, an Ocala-based consignor of 2-year-olds, said the large investment makes training with Polytrack an opportunity for only the most financially privileged.

"For the individual and for the farm owner, it's not economical, as much as we'd like to do it," he said.

So far, the growth of Polytrack at training centers appears to have been driven more by safety concerns and a perceived training benefit than by the bottom line. For example, Juddmonte Farm in Lexington, one of the world's leading racing and breeding farms, added a Polytrack training facility last spring.

With an increased emphasis on U.S. racing, the farm needed a track to prepare its 2-year-olds and to break other young horses, manager Garrett O'Rourke said.

"We used to have like 10 horses that would go over some grass gallops here at the farm," he said. "When you start having all 30 go over it, it would tear up the grass. Then sometimes it's too cold and the grass is frozen, or it's too wet and they can't go out."

The Polytrack surface, installed last March, gives Juddmonte an opportunity to train horses day after day. O'Rourke said he believes Polytrack leaves Juddmonte's horses in better health by limiting injuries such as bucked shins. Six to eight weeks away from a race, O'Rourke said, the horses are sent to trainer Bobby Frankel.

Although Juddmonte's young horses do not run directly off the Polytrack training facility, officials at Hurricane Hall Farm hope to do just that. Trainer David Hanley, one of the investors in the farm, has 12 horses in training there, a number that he hopes will grow to 60.

Hanley, an Irishman who bred and trained 2002 champion grass mare Golden Apples during her early career, said he intends to operate a public stable from Hurricane Hall, with his first starter of the year coming in February or March. Additionally, he intends to sell horses privately off the farm, although not at the 2-year-old sales.

The uphill Polytrack gallop at Hurricane Hall - which reportedly cost more than $800,000 - was designed to reduce pressure on a horse's front legs, shifting stress to the back legs. It rises 60 feet from start to finish, mimicking some of the gallops over which Hanley once trained horses in Ireland.

Hanley said he believes this is just one of numerous successful methods of training.

"We don't want to appear to be reinventing the wheel," he said.

Not that training over Polytrack is anything new. Martin Collins, an inventor, first used the surface for training in Europe in the late 1980's. It was later used at racetracks in Britain, including Lingfield Park starting in 2001 and Wolverhampton in 2004.

The growth and popularity of the surface doesn't surprise O'Rourke, given that people regularly seek advantages in training. He said that if there were a training center with Polytrack 30 minutes from Aqueduct, "I'd be betting on every one of them that had been training over the Polytrack."

Beasley said he believes that Polytrack will have secondary benefits beyond those directly associated with the horses. He said Keeneland has decided to open an additional barn to allow 2-year-olds to begin training over Polytrack at Keeneland this winter.

If those horses are further along in their training because of the surface, he said, "that helps us fill our 2-year-old races, and it helps Churchill, Ellis, the whole Kentucky circuit."

Brennan, the leading consignor by gross at the Keeneland 2-year-olds in training sale last April, also sees benefits to the sales industry. He said most of his horses trained over Polytrack at the Keeneland training track last April in preparation for the sale, and the horses responded to its consistent footing. He said he looks forward to the surface being placed on the main track at Keeneland.

"There's that golden rail at Keeneland," he said, referring to the current dirt surface. "It's very fast, especially when it's wet." To some degree, he pointed out, that can affect workouts by sales prospects.

Brennan said he doesn't expect Polytrack to extend much into his region in Ocala, noting the warmer climate and the fact that most farms there operate at full capacity in the winter. Adding a Polytrack surface would add expense without significantly increasing revenue, he said.

Bonnie Hamilton, who along with her husband, Tommy, spent what she estimated as $700,000 to $1 million to build the Silverton Hill Polytrack surface, echoed that sentiment.

"The costs will probably keep it from catching on like wildfire," she said. "Unless someone comes along with a really good knockoff that's half the price."