Track Supers: Don't Diss Dirt Just Yet

Track Supers: Don't Diss Dirt Just Yet
Photo: Rick Samuels
Belmont will be keeping its dirt track.
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On the second day of the Track Superintendent Field Day at Keeneland June 3, the focus was turned toward dirt tracks, as a panel of six superintendents from across the nation talked about various methods used on the surfaces.

Jerry Porcelli of the New York Racing Association stands behind the dirt tracks at Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga, and said he doesn't know if installing synthetic surfaces would ever be the right answer in New York.

“I couldn’t say that (dirt) is still at this point better; we’d just like to see more evidence (of the benefits of synthetic surfaces),” Porcelli said. “We’d like to see the longevity of it, we’d like to see what happens to this track over the years, and we want to see how much maintenance it takes and how much it’s going to cost to maintain it.

“I think there are questions about what it’s going to do when everything breaks down…is it going to clog up the blacktop, and what is it going to do in the Northeast during the winter?”

Porcelli said he may change his tune in the next few years when technology improves and waxes are created that can resist lower temperatures.

“If you can hold off on these kinds of things, you may be better off, because something better may be coming down the road,” he said. “We’re happy with the dirt tracks in New York, but certainly you have to keep your eyes open to new things. If this is going to be the future and proves to be safer for horses, we’re all for it.”

Tom Trevor of Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort said his main issue with maintaining Mountaineer’s dirt track has been all the hoops he has had to jump through to please horsemen. Mountaineer races year-round.

“There’s always an argument among the horsemen because everyone gets their own measurements (of the depth of the track), but we try and maintain 3 1/2 inches (of soil),” said Trevor, who said Mountaineer is considering installing a synthetic surface in the future.

Trevor said he believes the track has the best consistency and grip in its cushion at the end of the season when the clay content is high, but the horsemen tend to disagree. In regard to using salt to maintain dirt tracks, some superintendents said they had significantly benefited from it, while others had tried it and disliked it.

“You have to test it, and it’s a very demanding schedule to adjust to,” Trevor said. “It creates potholes, and the two times we used it, it was a nightmare and damaged the base of our track. It might work if you have the right application process.”

Porcelli, who likes using a minimal amount of salt on his tracks, stressed that using a feed salt makes a huge difference. The main benefit of using the ingredient in the winter is that is slows down the freezing process. “It’s another tool to make our job easier, especially in the Northeast,” he said.

Procelli said tracks can contain good clay and bad clay. “Some can hurt even at low percentages,” he said. “We find that the silts are a binder, and some clays can make it a slick track. It’s all tied into what’s around you.”

George McDermott of Lone Star Park said tracks across the country should stratify or layer their materials accordingly, depending on their individual weather conditions. His biggest piece of advice, however, is to not take a person’s recommendation for fact in regard to adding materials to a dirt track.

“Whatever somebody recommends to me, I don’t believe them,” said McDermot, who showed the audience seven different bottles containing completely different types of dirt from tracks in the same vicinity of the country. “If they tell me (to add a material to) 1,000 yards, I put it on 200 yards at a time. Because what they recommend, they go sleep at night somewhere else and charge you $300.

"We’ve got $100,000 horses running around out there. I would rather tweak (the track) than throw (material) all in there at once.”

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