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Tracks line up for artificial race surfaces
LEXINGTON, Ky. - On a rainy morning in September 2004, Keeneland president Nick Nicholson stood at the edge of the track's five-eighths-mile training oval clutching a handful of wax-coated fibers and said, "Go ahead. Take a handful. I don't want this on the record, but this could be the future of racing."
The future is now.
The mixture that Nicholson held that day was taken from the training track's newly installed synthetic racing surface called Polytrack, which Keeneland manufactures in a partnership with its English developer, Martin Collins. By the end of 2007, at least eight major racetracks in North America are expected to race over Polytrack or surfaces like it, such as the widely praised Tapeta surface developed by the trainer Michael Dickinson. Turfway Park in northern Kentucky, which is owned in partnership by Keeneland, became the first American track to install Polytrack on its main course in 2005, and projects are under way to install Polytrack on Keeneland's main course and at Woodbine Racecourse in Toronto. In addition, Dickinson's Tapeta surface is being installed at Fair Hill training center in Maryland.
More significantly, the California Horse Racing Board, emboldened by a tenfold reduction in the catastrophic-injury rate at Turfway, has passed a rule requiring all five of the state's major racetracks - Bay Meadows Race Course, Del Mar, Golden Gate Fields, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita - to replace their dirt courses with synthetic surfaces by the end of 2007. The total cost, according to California racing officials, could exceed $40 million.
The move to artificial racing surfaces underscores the Thoroughbred industry's increasing sensitivity to racing-related injuries, a concern that has been amplified by the career-ending breakdown suffered by Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro in this year's Preakness Stakes. Supporters of the synthetic surfaces contend that artificial tracks are far kinder to racehorses and jockeys, can better withstand temperature variations and precipitation, and are far less expensive to maintain than conventional dirt tracks.
Although horsemen have generally praised the artificial surfaces, some have complained about the amount of fiber that gets kicked up during races, and others have quietly grumbled that current training methods to emphasize speed are not sufficient to prepare a horse over the generally slower engineered material. So despite the benefits, support for artificial surfaces is not unanimous, and some racetracks are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
Churchill Downs, for example, has no plans to install an artificial surface at any of its five tracks, but the company will monitor the latest installations, according to a Churchill spokeswoman, Julie Koenig Loignon.
"The safety of our two-legged and four-legged athletes is paramount to us, but we'd like to see first how these surfaces hold up over time," Koenig Loignon said.
Some horseplayers have criticized the move to artificial surfaces for failing to take into account concerns about handicapping. Others have decried the potential loss to the sport's historical record, contending that comparisons with the great performances over conventional dirt tracks will be rendered meaningless because the manufactured surfaces yield slower times. Still others have cast doubt on the results from Turfway, contending that one meet's worth of data, while impressive, should not form the basis of a decision that has the potential to uproot so many traditions and training methods.
Richard Shapiro, the chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, said that the board had heard all of those criticisms before voting unanimously on May 25 - six days after Barbaro was injured on Pimlico's dirt course - to require the synthetic surfaces.
"These are all legitimate issues, and I can sympathize with the people making the complaints," Shapiro said. "But for me, the bottom line is that the health of the horse has to come first. When you look at the data on breakdowns, it's unacceptable. It's staggering. We had 227 horses destroyed on our tracks in 2005. And that doesn't count soft-tissue injuries or bowed tendons or suspensories."
Racetrack officials in California have at the very least accepted the decision, and some have embraced it. Officials at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club expect its 2006 meet will be its last to feature a conventional dirt surface, according to Craig Fravel, the executive vice president of the track, and is close to signing a contract with Keeneland for Polytrack,
according to Keeneland officials. Magna Entertainment Corp., the owner of Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields, is also close to choosing a vendor. Even the Bay Meadows Land Co., the owner of Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park - two sites that could be developed for purposes other than racing in the near future - is intent on installing the artificial surfaces.
"I was surprised at the action the CHRB took, in light of the financial burden on the entire industry," said Jack Liebau, the president of Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park, who said that each installation would cost $8 million to $10 million. "But let me also say that I understand and appreciate the motivation. The
concern is for the safety of the horses. That's perfectly understandable. And we know that the advantages of the surfaces are pretty apparent. They are kinder to horses, and they reduce injuries. That much we know for sure."
During the recent Turfway Park winter-spring meet, the track reported, three horses suffered catastrophic breakdowns over the artificial surface, compared with 24 the previous meet over dirt. Turfway canceled no racing days because of poor track conditions in the 2005-06 meet compared with 11 cancellations during the 2004-05 meet, a statistic credited to the artificial surface's resiliency in adverse weather.
Installing artificial surfaces is no easy project. The dirt track has to be completely removed, including the base, so that a drainage system can be installed. A layer of loose stones is laid around and over the drainage pipes, and that layer is covered by a four- to six-inch layer of tarmac chunks. Next comes the artificial surface itself, which, regardless of manufacturer, is typically composed of water-repellent, wax-coated natural and synthetic fibers, including pieces of shredded rubber, usually seven to eight inches deep.
Installation, however, does not typically stop at the racetrack itself. Contamination by dirt or other particles can compromise the consistency of the surface, so dirt pathways leading to the track have to be sequestered or overlaid with the artificial surface. Officials from racetracks that have had artificial surfaces said privately that the surfaces are not maintenance-free; in fact, many of the tracks need to be watered depending on the relative humidity, and most of the artificial surfaces now in use are harrowed at least once a day.
Four companies are vying for the California racetrack business: Martin Collins Surfaces and Footings, the Polytrack manufacturer; Tapeta Footings; Stabilizer Solutions, a surface-materials company in Phoenix; and Equestrian Solutions, a British company. Officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the competitive nature of the bidding said that Polytrack and Tapeta are the two top candidates for the California tracks.
California racing officials said that little distinguished the artificial surfaces from each other, although manufacturers of the surfaces likely use different ratios for the ingredients in the topmost layer. In addition, the manufacturers also use slightly different drainage systems, although those systems will differ most because of the underlying conditions at the racetrack.
The competition between Tapeta and Polytrack has become intense, considering the rapid run-up in potential orders for the surfaces and the millions of dollars involved in a typical installation. Polytrack beat out Tapeta at Woodbine, but Tapeta got the contract for Fair Hill. According to the California racing officials, Polytrack is being favored for Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park, in addition to Del Mar.
The competition has a twist. Dickinson holds the U.S. patent, granted in 1998, on a critical part of the manufacturing process, wax coating, and Polytrack has had to license the process from Tapeta. So Dickinson's company receives fees from his competitor, although Dickinson would not disclose the amount. Keeneland officials confirmed that they purchased a license from Dickinson based on the patent.
California racing officials said that when they first explored the artificial surfaces, they had doubts about the ability of existing artificial surfaces to handle a warm climate. But the officials said those doubts were quickly dispelled as they realized that even in Southern California, the temperatures do not exceed those of a Kentucky or Maryland summer, where artificial surfaces have been in use for years on training tracks.
"I really don't think we're going to have any problems with the heat," said Ron Charles, the president of Santa Anita. "What I'm most concerned about is the number of horses we will be sending over the track. We train during the morning, year-round, and we run in the afternoon. Will the surface hold up?"
Dickinson, ticking off government statistics describing the range of weather conditions his training track has endured over the past eight years in Elk Neck, Md., said that California weather would not pose a problem to Tapeta.
"If you're asking me whether or not I'm going to change anything to deal with the California weather, the answer is absolutely not," Dickinson said. "Does it ever get to 110 degrees, or minus 17? Do they get hurricanes? Do they ever get 12 inches of rain in 12 hours?"
Dickinson, whose confidence in his product comes from working with the surface for 12 years, dismissed any concerns about the Tapeta surface standing up to the heavy traffic of the California tracks. No material was added to the Tapeta Farm surface for the first four years after it was installed; since then, Dickinson said, he "invigorates" the track once every year with new material constituting perhaps "1 to 2 percent" of the total volume.
Jim Pendergest, the general manager of Martin Collins Surfaces and Footings, said that the traffic on California tracks should also pose no problem to Polytrack, citing training yards in England where the surface has been installed for years.
"On a horse-by-square-foot basis, we're talking about numbers that far exceed anything the California tracks can put out there, and the surface has held up extremely well," Pendergest said.
Both Tapeta and Keeneland plan to use mobile manufacturing facilities in their installations. The Tapeta processing is contained in three 53-foot tractor trailers that Dickinson calls the "most state-of-the-art" process. Keeneland uses two trailers - one for the mixer, which resembles a large agricultural feed mixer, according to Pendergest, and the other for the wax-coating machinery.
"When you're dealing with 12,000 tons of sand, and a total of 16,000 tons of surface materials, it's a lot easier to move the factory than to ship everything across the country," Dickinson said.
While Dickinson said that he does not expect to modify his mixture for any California installations, Pendergest said that Keeneland would modify the ratio of ingredients in its Polytrack mixture by adding less fiber and rubber to the mix and more sand. The wax coating will also be thicker, Pendergest said, to minimize kickback and speed up the track.
"From all our discussions out there, it seems they want something a little faster, something a little more compact" than the track at Turfway, Pendergest said of the California racetracks.
When asked whether a more compact and faster surface could mitigate the surface's ability to prevent injuries, Pendergest said that the minor modifications should not matter, but that Polytrack officials would watch closely for any variations in performance that could indicate a need for additional changes.
In any case, the California Horse Racing Board will be looking over the tracks' shoulders. Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB's new equine medical director, is designing a system that will attempt to catalog injuries over the artificial surfaces compared with injuries suffered over dirt surfaces. The system will rely on data from local clinics about the numbers of X-rays and surgeries performed, as well as the data that the board already collects through its mandatory necropsy program for any horse that dies in a racing enclosure.
Arthur said that he will take no role in determining which artificial surface the tracks install. But when racing begins, he said he plans to closely monitor the results, all with an eye on safety.
"It's going to be the tracks' decisions as far as which surface they go with," Arthur said. "It's going to be my job to make sure that the [surfaces] are doing what we want them to do, which is reduce injuries."
Across the county, other tracks will be watching. Charles Hayward, the chief executive officer of the New York Racing Association, which operates Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga Racecourse, said that the association will decide early next year whether to include in its bid to renew its franchise a plan to install artificial surfaces on the Aqueduct inner track, which is used in the winter, and the Belmont Park training track.
NYRA - which has struggled with cash flow problems and recently negotiated a $30 million loan package from the state - can't afford the $15 million price tag to install the two surfaces now, nor can it take any action before its franchise expires at the end of 2007. But Hayward said that after three visits to Keeneland and Turfway, he's convinced that artificial surfaces will be a solid element in racing's future.
"This is probably one of those rare situations where you can say it's a win-win," Hayward said.