From a distance, it looks like dirt--a little on the tan side. Up close, it looks like fake dirt. But it's really just modified Polytrack, complete with Spandex, cabling material, and more sand.
When Turfway Park kicked off its live meet the evening of Sept. 6, the formerly gray surface had not only changed in color. It was somewhat tighter, and by most accounts, much better for horses and jockeys. Final race times didn't appear any faster, though horses had been registering very quick workouts in the morning.
The experiment, or perhaps the quest for the optimum surface at the Northern Kentucky racetrack, continues.
"I think for racing it won't have as much kickback, but we don't know yet," jockey Shelley Moran said a few hours before the first race.
"It seems like it's tighter and faster, and the kickback seems not as bad," trainer Claude Brownfield said.
After the first few races, the kickback assessments appeared accurate. The first incarnation of Turfway Polytrack was considered superior to the old dirt surface, but there were days and nights when the kickback was rather pronounced, so much so it flew into the faces of horses and riders. A few jockeys said it was like riding in a snowstorm.
"I've liked the track since they put it in," said jockey Dean Sarvis, who rode 45-1 shot Lost Composer, a confirmed closer, to victory in the third race of the night. "There hasn't been any rain here for a couple of days, and (the surface) still isn't kicking back as much. It's not biased. You can ride them like you have to ride them."
The first three races were won by closers, though each race featured a contested early pace. In the fourth race, Mister Sultry went from last to first in a one-mile claiming event that had a horse loose on the lead. The center of the track appeared the place to be.
That trend could speak to the talent of the 2-year-old Bianconi filly Miss Aspen, who wired a solid field of maiden special weight foes in the fifth race for owner Peggy Pate, trainer David Pate, and jockey Greg Schaefer. Miss Aspen shortened stride late on the tiring surface but held very well in 1:13 2/5 for six furlongs.
In the next race, Port Hueneme went from last to first in a six-furlong claiming test.
No matter the racing patterns for the first half of the opening night card, the surface has received positive reviews as far as training is concerned.
"It's a real kind surface--even kinder than it was before," Moran said. "It's kinder on horses with (problems with) ankles or knees. I do think, on Polytrack, it's a little bit harder to get them fit. During the last meet, horses needed a trip over the track."
Moran is regular rider of the veteran mare Water Gap, who does her best on the grass at Keeneland and River Downs. Water Gap didn't fire her best shots in a couple of starts at Turfway last winter; Moran isn't sold on the perception that many turf horses excel on the synthetic surface.
"I don't think it's a matter of liking the turf," Moran said. "It's a matter of liking Polytrack."
The surface has been well-received by owners as well. "I think it keeps horses from breaking down as frequently," owner Calvin Ingram said. "It's a good track."
Brownfield, who usually stables at River Downs in neighboring Ohio in the summer, kept his horses at Turfway this summer for training. He indicated extended training, which track president Bob Elliston said was a success financially and otherwise, is a major benefit for the region.
"The track was good all summer, and the more water on it, the better it is," Brownfield said. "It's great for older horses that have problems. I also think there's a big advantage to training on it and running somewhere else."
With Keeneland having replaced its dirt surface with Polytrack, and already having a Polytrack training surface, there is increased interest by major stables in having a Kentucky presence year-round, Elliston said. Should new blood stable at Keeneland in the winter, field size and the quality of racing at Turfway could benefit, he said.
Year-round training at Turfway has benefits beyond Kentucky. River Downs, located about 20 minutes away, attracted decent-sized fields this summer to the detriment of Ellis Park, a Kentucky track located about three hours from Turfway.
Trainer Patrick Biancone, who kept a large contingent in training at Turfway all summer, said he didn't see much of a difference in the modified surface.
"I've found the track to be very good since I've been here (last September)," Biancone said. "I do think it's visually better since the (previous) meet," he said in regard to the kickback.
Biancone said he plans to stable horses at Turfway and Keeneland throughout the fall and winter. "It's not only the track," he said. "I like the people here."
Trainer Dale Romans also had a string at Turfway this summer. "The track looks a lot better," he said. "It doesn't have as much kickback, and it looks more bouncy."
Romans said he'd keep even more horses in Kentucky in the winter if the economics of Kentucky racing changed for the better as far as the purse structure is concerned. Romans winters in South Florida.
"The only thing that would keep me from it is the purse structure," Romans said. "We need to even the gap (in purses) between Keeneland and Churchill and Ellis Park and Turfway. If we had (a stronger) purse structure here, I'd love to leave more horses here."
Said Elliston: "We've answered the surface question. Now we have to address, as the Kentucky racing industry as a whole, the dual structure of racing in the state. The horsemen will support racing at Turfway with the proper purse structure. We need some competitive help to move (purses) up.
"They want to run at Turfway, and we as an industry have to find a way to bring purses to a level where horsemen aren't sacrificing their operations (by racing here)."
Keeneland usually offers about $600,000 a day in purses, followed by Churchill Downs at about $450,000. Turfway is next at about $175,000 a day, with Ellis Park at about $150,000.
The Kentucky horse industry has failed in its attempts to win approval for casino gambling, revenue from which would be used to bolster purses. The industry is expected, however, to make another push during a future legislative session.