12/05/2003 12:00AM

Scratch the surface and find hard work


LEXINGTON, KY. - With the possible exceptions of the air traffic controllers at nearby Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Turfway Park's general manager Greg Schmitz and track superintendent Daniel Chapman may have had the most stressful jobs in the region during the winter of 2002.

The two fought a valiant but losing battle against the toughest winter to hit the area in the last 20 years and received more criticism than they deserved while fighting against conditions that were mostly beyond their control.

"From the first of January through the first or second week of February, we had 28 inches of snow, seven inches of rain, and four inches of ice," Schmitz explained. "We didn't see the sun for most of that month, so you can imagine the thaw we came out of, and that is what cost us all of our racing during the last two weeks of February."

Other tracks have also faced their share of cold weather in recent years, but those tracks don't usually thaw out very often. The thing that makes track maintenance so much more difficult at Turfway than it is at other winter racing venues is the broader range of temperatures that are commonly found at Turfway. Unfortunately, many trainers, owners, and fans do not fully appreciate how big of an impact that difference makes.

"We looked at tracks like Penn National, the Maryland tracks, and Aqueduct," Schmitz said, "and what we found in talking to people is that they do not go through the freeze-thaws that we do. It gets cold and it stays cold. Here in northern Kentucky, we have had circumstances where we come to work and it is 50 or 60 degrees, but by the end of racing with the wind chill, we're down to around zero. If you've got any moisture in your racing surface, it will freeze quickly."

When temperatures rise again the next day, the thawing conditions can wreak havoc with the racing surface, which sometimes leads to the need to cancel one or more racing cards for the protection of the horses and jockeys. When that happens, the calls come in from trainers, owners, and others who don't understand why some other tracks are able to stay open more often.

It is unlikely that this winter will be as brutal as it was last year, but that did not stop Schmitz and Chapman from taking measures designed to enable the track to better handle whatever weather conditions nature dishes out.

"We took a hard look at the type of sand we had been using, how it was reacting to the weather conditions, and how well it repelled water," said Schmitz. With the advice of a consultant, the New York Racing Association's retired track superintendent Joe King, Schmitz said he and Chapman "chose to resurface the track."

The sand they chose is a finer grain than what was used previously, which was a welcome change for the jockeys, who complained that it felt like they were being hit by BB pellets as the sand from the previous surface was kicked back on them

Most jockeys do not mind so much being hit by the sand from the new surface, which consists of four parts of mason sand mixed with one part of concrete sand. Beneath that is a limestone base, which covers a layer of clay.

Resurfacing the track was no small project.

"It takes 2,500 tons of material to add one inch of racing surface," said Chapman. "The four-inch surface required 10,000 tons of sand out there."

The issue of whether or not to cancel a racing card at Turfway can be a tricky one, since many of the horses who run at the winter meet ship in on the same day they are scheduled to race.

"We are in a unique situation here because we average 75 ship-ins per day," said Schmitz. "So what we do is meet at about 7 a.m. We get an assessment from the night superintendent to see what the condition of the surface is. Then we call other tracks and training centers to see what the weather conditions are like over there, and check the travel conditions to see if the horses will be able to get here.

"Since some of the horses have to ship in from far away, we try to make the decision whether or not to cancel by noon when we race at night. When day racing is offered on weekends, we try to make the call by 9 a.m., but a lot of the guys are already on the road by then, and it puts them in a tough spot."

With the improvements made to the racing surface, the efforts of Chapman and his 24-man track maintenance crew, and the advance planning done by Schmitz, all Turfway Park need for a smoother winter than last is a little luck with the weather.

But if there is a tough call to be made, you can bet that Chapman and Schmitz will do the right thing, even if they are likely to be criticized for it.

"Safety is our number one goal," said Chapman.