Track Superintendents Talk Synthetics

Track superintendents answered synthetic-surface questions at Keeneland June 2.

With the racing industry being more and more scrutinized in the area of track safety, the seventh annual Track Superintendent Field Day conference at Keeneland June 2-3 seemed an especially timely opportunity for questions to be answered by synthetic-track maintenance professionals from around the country.

During a synthetic-surface panel involving track superintendents Mike Young of Keeneland, Richard Tedesco of Santa Anita Park, Steve Wood of Del Mar, Irwin Driedger of Woodbine, Javier Barajas of Arlington Park, Jeff Chapman of Turfway Park, and Michael Dickinson of Tapeta Footings, it wasn’t surprising the first topic centered on the widely publicized deterioration of Santa Anita’s Cushion Track surface.

“Anybody that’s dealing with any of these synthetics should not take the word of anyone building it,” Tedesco said. “I think you should do your own testing to find out if there are any ingredients that shouldn’t be there.”

Tedesco explained that Santa Anita was told the Cushion Track would be ready to use upon installation, and that it would be identical to Hollywood Park’s surface, so it wasn’t monitored as well as it should have been.

“There could be a mistake—we got the wrong sand, and that caused the compaction ratio to go way up,” he said. “It also caused the drainage to not work properly because we were always working with the top layer. What was going on down below, we didn’t have any idea until the first rain storm, and then after that, it just kind of went out control.”

After extensive testing, Tedesco realized the track was comprised of an alarming 8.3% silt and clay.

Santa Anita lost several days of racing in January because of the track’s drainage issue, and Pro-Ride Racing Australia representatives installed materials in an effort to repair the surface and get the track through its winter meet. Replacement of the asphalt base is likely the next step in the ongoing effort to remedy the surface.

“We still have a drainage issue on the blacktop area,” Tedesco said. “That probably came from the wax and silt mixing and adhering to the blacktop. We went through a 10-day power washing of the blacktop—we worked 24 hours a day, and we thought we had it remedied, but it just didn’t happen. So now we’re at a point where many decisions have to be made for the Breeders’ Cup.”

In spite of all the issues at Santa Anita, Tedesco still stands behind the surface. “Since we’ve gotten it under control with Pro Ride, it has been really good,” he said, adding that there have been significantly fewer injuries at Santa Anita compared with when it was a dirt track.

Wood said Del Mar’s Polytrack surface had also proven to be “phenomenally safe,” with only two fatalities last year while racing six days a week. He explained how management had done some experiments with adding water to the track, and had discovered the right amount could make the surface tighter and faster.

“We thought it would jeopardize the blacktop layer, but it didn’t,” Wood said. “Water makes the track cooler and significantly tighter.”

Wood believes synthetic surfaces require significantly more maintenance than dirt because track superintendents are still learning about the surface. But he commended Keeneland officials for showing Del Mar how to take care of Polytrack.

Chapman said the first year Turfway installed Polytrack, the track only had two fatalities. And while the numbers have risen the last two years, he attributes that to the harsh racing conditions in the winter.

“For us, (Polytrack) was a no-brainer—we have way less fatalities (than before),” Chapman said. “In the long run, it also saved us a ton of money."

Dickinson, whose Tapeta surface is used at Golden Gate Fields and Presque Isle Downs & Casino, as well as five training centers worldwide, said he sees four problems with synthetic surfaces: "They can’t completely eliminate injuries; they require really good track superintendants; they can’t handle an ice storm, which means missed days of racing; and they won’t eliminate slow horses--trainers can’t blame the track any more for a horse’s performance."

Dickinson said the safest thing a trainer can do is not put toe grabs on horses racing on synthetic surfaces, because they have statistically been proven to have caused more injuries.