Above the Surface
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Keeneland training track features new Polytrack materials developed by Martin Collins.
(Article appears in the September 25, 2004 edition of The Blood-Horse)

Is Polytrack the future of racing surfaces in the United States? The five-eighths-mile training track at Keeneland may ultimately answer that question.

Polytrack--polypropylene fibers, recycled rubber, and silica sand covered in a wax coating--has been used for training and racing for years in Great Britain, but Keeneland is the first U.S. facility to install it. Previews Sept. 13-14 during the Keeneland September yearling sale drew curiosity seekers but also some high-profile trainers. The initial response was positive.

"I'd say it's the most promising thing I've seen in the future of racetrack surfaces," California-based trainer Dick Mandella said. "Horses get over it easy, and I think that would decrease the percentage of injuries. From a first viewing, it's amazing. It could be the biggest answer to short fields. Horses would have to stay sounder than on a normal racetrack."

Martin Collins, who created Polytrack, supervised its installation at Keeneland. He and Glynnie Walford, general manager of Martin Collins Enterprises, were on hand during the preview days at the Lexington track.

Collins and Walford said the surface, which has a limestone color, takes the shock away from a horse, reduces kickback, and can absorb any amount of water because it employs a vertical drainage system. There is no runoff like there is with dirt surfaces, and the surface is never "sloppy."

As for maintenance, Collins said: "If you closed it for six months, in one morning you could have the track ready again."

Walford said at Lingfield racecourse in England, the surface is always rated "standard." During recent trials at different distances, exercise riders would suggest it be made tighter, faster, or slower, and it would take about a half-hour to make the adjustment, she said.

The Polytrack at Keeneland could lead to bigger things. Much will depend on how the surface withstands freezing conditions in the winter and extreme heat in the summer.

"It's a learning process," Keeneland president Nick Nicholson said. "We have a lot of confidence in this. We chose the surface partially because of the experience in England, and it should work well here. We want to do something better for the horse."

Nicholson indicated Turfway Park, which Keeneland co-owns, is a candidate for Polytrack should the surface hold up under extreme conditions. The main track at Keeneland is a possibility as well, but Nicholson said the learning process could take some time.

"I think it's the wave of the future," said trainer Larry Demeritte, who had horses on the new surface. "We need to go through one summer with it, because I think the test will be the heat, not the cold. Horses feet don't sting them on this surface. The amazing thing is how well they adjust to it their first time on it."

Retired jockey Patricia Cooksey worked a filly on the Polytrack the morning of Sept. 14. She said the filly, who has a sore shoulder, performed much better on the synthetic surface than the usual dirt surface.

"It's absolutely awesome," Cooksey said. "It seems like the horses have springs on their feet. The surface doesn't cup away from them."

Polytrack, according to Collins, is carefully weighed and blended to create a consistent surface. The manufacturing process coats every particle with wax.

The Keeneland training track has a seven-inch-deep Polytrack surface atop a 10-inch base. It consists of a layer of porous macadam, a clean stone base, and a drainage system that employs longitudinal and cross drains.

A few racetracks in the U.S. have experimented with all-weather surfaces, and two of them switched to customary surfaces primarily because they believed they could recruit more horses, officials said. Remington Park replaced its Equitrack in 1991 after a few years, and Calder Race Course replaced its Tartan track in 1991 after 20 years.

Racing surfaces could be one of the more under-the-radar topics in the sport, at least in terms of public discourse. During this year's Jockey Club Round Table, however, trainer John Ward Jr. suggested uniformity in racing surfaces could be the next big issue for the industry.

"There's no reason for us to hold to the ways of the past," Ward, who is based at Keeneland, said during the Round Table. "Surfaces are being compromised by budget cuts and a bottom-line mentality. This is not a place to save money."

Mandella credited Keeneland with giving Polytrack a shot. "In this industry, doing anything first is scary," he said.

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