When the first synthetic surface used for racing purposes in the United States was christened in early September 2005, it marked a potential game-changer for the industry.
On a national basis, the jury is still out. But for Turfway Park, which at the end of 2010 completed five full years of racing on Polytrack, track officials said the results have been largely positive, and there is no thought of returning to dirt.
There have been issues, primarily those related to maintenance. When synthetic surfaces were introduced, there was a misconception they would be maintenance-free; instead, they required a three-year learning curve in most cases.
Turfway has had a few clusters of breakdowns—one was directly related to shoeing, track officials and regulators said—but overall the reported numbers are unexpectedly good. Since the first Polytrack meet in 2005, the number of catastrophic breakdowns at Turfway has been 1.2 per 1,000 starts, well below the national average, as reported to the Equine Injury Database.
The statistical period runs through Jan. 31 of this year.
The surface was installed to improve racehorse safety and reduce winter weather-related cancellations. Officials contend it has succeeded on both counts.
“Relative to the quality of horses and other racing surfaces, our numbers are a strong indicator of quality of surface anywhere in the country,” Turfway president Bob Elliston said. “It behaves like a normal racetrack. For safety, it outperforms a normal racetrack.
“Early on it wasn’t perfect. For last two or three years I’ve had a lot of headaches in my racing life, but the racing surface isn’t one of them.”
It took a while to reach that point. In the first few years the surface was difficult to maintain from a consistency standpoint—the wax content was regularly adjusted—and horsemen would regularly register their complaints to track officials and even the media.
In the last two to three years, that hasn’t been the case, largely because of regular dialogue between track superintendent Jeff Chapman and horsemen and jockeys, Elliston said.
“We do get consistent feedback, and Jeff has gotten very good at doing something with it,” Elliston said. “In large part it was a matter of a learning curve and getting the right equipment to maintain the surface.”
Chapman now uses a cultivator to blend the Polytrack material at a much faster rate, which is necessary when dealing with cold and moisture.
Timing is a factor as well. After a night of heavy rain, the temperature dropped into the 20s, and the surface needed work for training the next morning. Horsemen told Chapman, training was suspended, and the crew was able to get the surface ready for the next day.
Elliston said it’s hard to say how many live racing programs would have been lost so far this winter. Thorough Feb. 16, two were scrapped: one for snow that would have kept trailers from traveling roads, and the other when temperatures fell to 15 degrees with a wind chill of 7 degrees.
“This winter, with all the moisture we’ve had and the temperature swings, we’d probably be looking at eight to 10 cancellations by now based on past experience (with the dirt surface),” Elliston said. “There’s no comparison in terms of our ability to run more often given the elements we deal with.”
Affer a flurry of installions in the mid- to late 2000s, no synthetic surfaces have been installed, and one, at Santa Anita Park, was removed, in large part because of issues with the way its drainage system was constructed.
Other tracks with synthetic surfaces are Arlington Park, Del Mar, Keeneland, and Woodbine (Polytrack); Golden Gate Fields and Presque Isle Downs & Casino (Tapeta); and Hollywood Park (Cushion Track). A group called the Engineered Racing Surfaces Coalition maintains some statistics and serves as a clearinghouse for information related to maintenance and other issues.
The problems Santa Anita had with its Cushion Track surface generated negative publicity for synthetic surfaces even though supporters from time to time provide information showing positive results. The Tapeta surface at Presque Isle Downs, for instance, is highly rated by horsemen and has a very low incidence of catastrophic injuries.
When asked why officials at facilities with synthetic surfaces have for the most part backed away from public pronouncements, Elliston said: "Unfortunately it's not in vogue right now to talk about all-weather surfaces."