Is Polytrack the surface of the future?

Keeneland President Nick Nicholson does not, of course, have any idea
what the weather is going to be Sept. 7, the day Turfway Park, which is
owned by Keeneland and partners, opens its fall meet. But he won't have
a problem guaranteeing that the racetrack will be fast, safe and bias
free, no matter the weather conditions. Polytrack, he says, is that

"Polytrack has the potential to revolutionize racing in North America,"
Nicholson said.

Can something as simple as rubberized dirt change racing as we know it?
Nicholson believes it can and is confident the upcoming Turfway meet
will go a long way toward proving it.

The Turfway meet will be the first at a North American racetrack to use
the Polytrack surface for racing. (A Polytrack surface was installed at
the Keeneland training track in September, 2004). When Turfway opened
for training Aug. 2, horses were galloping and breezing over a surface
made up of polypropylene fibers, recycled rubber and silica sand covered
in a wax coating. Polytrack's inventor, Martin Collins, says that his
surface has none of the flaws of a conventional dirt track: It drains so
readily that the track is always fast; it is easy and inexpensive to
maintain; it is not prone to biases; it is kinder to horses than
traditional tracks, which reduces injuries.

Nicholson says that Collins's claims were validated with the experiment
at Keeneland with the Polytrack training track, which has held up
through extreme heat, cold, snow and everything else Mother Nature could
throw at it. The next step was to try it for an actual meet.

"Turfway is used as a laboratory to advance the conduct of racing,
including things like safety, the rails, surface, and growing the
business," said Turfway President Bob Elliston. "We've turned to the
racing product, and when we found out what Keeneland encountered with
its training track we started to focus on this. With our winter race
dates and the inconsistency that occurs here with our surface because of
the weather, this seemed like a natural for us. While it is a
significant capital expense, we think it's well worth it in terms of
moving our racing product forward and in terms of the safety of the
animals and the athletes."

Remington Park tried a similar surface when it opened in 1988 but
switched over to a conventional surface three years later, in part
because horsemen were reluctant to ship in from other tracks to run over
it. In the ensuing years, all-weather, rubberized tracks have improved
and have gained acceptance. Two tracks in England (Lingfield and
Wolverhampton) conduct dirt racing on a Polytrack surface, and several
European training centers also use an all-weather track.

Bettors should appreciate the lack of muddy surfaces, which can throw
off form and reduce field size due to scratches. On a Polytrack track,
water flows vertically, and not horizontally, through the surface into a
state-of-the-art drainage system. Some may appreciate the likelihood of
a fairer surface that doesn't benefit a particular running style,
particularly at Turfway, which many believe has too often been
speed-biased. Racetrack management will certainly appreciate the fact
that Polytrack should cut down on cancellations. It won't keep the track
open when there is three feet of snow on the ground and no one can get
to the track, but the freezing and thawing cycles that often wipe out
race days in the winter should no longer be a problem.

"This is going to dramatically cut down on the number of racing days we
miss," Elliston predicted.

If Polytrack is as safe as advertised, that should provide even greater
benefits. The fragility of the modern race horse has become a crisis for
the sport. In 1980, horses started an average of 9.21 times per year.
Last year, it was down to 6.57. That has resulted in a significant
decrease in the size of fields, which has made racing a less attractive
gambling proposition to many. Anything Polytrack can do to reduce
injuries and keep horses in training longer will be a tremendous boon to
the sport.

"Up and down the line, we've heard nothing but positive comments about
the ability to condition a horse over it and the ease of how the horse
gets across the ground," Elliston said. "That suggests horses are
sounder and they don't require as much in the way of medication to deal
with the pains and the nicks horses get. It is a very comfortable and
very forgiving surface."

Keeneland will be next. A Polytrack surface will be installed there for
the 2006 fall meet, where several major stakes races are held. Should it
work as well there as Nicholson expects it will, no one can doubt its
benefits. Will Polytrack eventually be everywhere and can it
revolutionize racing? Maybe so.