03/28/2006 1:00AM

Switch to Polytrack this summer


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Woodbine will become the second track in North America to install Polytrack in place of a dirt racing surface.

The announcement was made Tuesday by Woodbine Entertainment Group, in conjunction with Polytrack partners Martin Collins and Keeneland, who are providing the materials and overseeing the installation of the artificial racing surface. Collins pioneered Polytrack in England more than 20 years ago.

Keeneland became the first facility in North America to offer Polytrack, installing the material on its five-furlong training track in September 2004. Keeneland plans to change its main racing surface to Polytrack prior to its fall meeting this year. Turfway Park, which is partly owned by Keeneland, began racing on Polytrack last September.

A Polytrack surface consists of a synthetic cushion that rests on top of a vertical drainage system. The top layer comprises silica sand, fibers, and recycled materials. Polytrack is easier and less expensive to maintain than a dirt track and is considered by many to be safer.

"To me this is the most exciting thing - and the most compelling thing - we've done since we put in slot machines in 2000," said David Willmot, chairman and chief executive officer of Woodbine, which is a not-for-profit corporation. In addition to holding both Thoroughbred and Standardbred race meetings, Woodbine houses a casino with 1,700 slot machines.

Other tracks, including Del Mar, have expressed an interest in installing a synthetic surface, but have not yet committed to the switch, partly because of the expense involved. Willmot estimated the cost of the entire Woodbine project at $10 million (Canadian). That figure includes revamping the seven-furlong Standardbred oval here to accommodate Thoroughbred racing during the transitional period.

The Standardbreds move from Woodbine to their summer meeting at Mohawk following the June 17 card here. Work on converting the Standardbred track, including changing the grades on the turns and installing inner and outer rails, can begin June 18.

Following the program on Monday, July 3, the cushion of Woodbine's one-mile main track will be transferred to the Standardbred oval.

That process is to be completed within four days, which would necessitate the cancellation of that week's scheduled Wednesday and Friday programs (Thursday is a dark day that week).

The Polytrack installation is scheduled to begin July 8 and be completed in six weeks. Turf racing will not be affected.

"This has to be done when the chance of having rain is the least," said Willmot. "We've got to do it in July and August; there's no choice.

"Everybody thinks we're crazy, with our six-week time frame. We'll be going double-shifts, right through the night. It's a good thing we have the lights."

Chris Evans, Woodbine's director of Thoroughbred racing, said the local Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association has been supportive of the Polytrack proposal. But not all horsemen, he added, are thrilled about the prospect of racing on the inner track during the transitional period.

"Racing on the new track, we expect there will be some reservations," said Evans. "But the horsemen who have spoken to me have said they'll put up with some inconvenience, for the sake of the long-term benefit."

Willmot said ongoing problems with the dirt surface, which was proving far too difficult to maintain through the radically differing weather conditions of an April through December meeting, led to the Polytrack decision.

"We knew we had to do something about the track," said Willmot.

"Then the question is, do you spend $4 million building a new dirt track or do you spend significantly more than that building something what you think is absolutely state of the art and is not only the best thing for the horse - which is our primary motivation - but also is the best thing for your business?

"To say that it's the right thing to do is an understatement. It's one of those expenditures that's very easy to rationalize.

"The experience has been that you'll get more starts from a horse in a racing season. That leads to bigger field size, and that leads to more wagering.

"And, there'll be a two-pronged benefit. Besides the increased revenue, there will be approximately $750,000 a year in savings in racetrack maintenance."

Woodbine's training track will remain a dirt surface, and the Standardbred track will be switched back to its traditional footing before its meet begins Oct. 9.