More than 20 fatal breakdowns in an eight-week period last summer led to waves of negative publicity for Arlington. But on opening day, every television news operation in Chicago was on hand to do positive pieces about Polytrack. Attendance of 10,561 was up 2,707 from last year, and the 106 entries contributed to a significant rise in handle as well.
Arlington parent company Churchill Downs Inc. spent nearly $11 million to install Polytrack in time for the track's May 4 opener, and horsemen responded by filling up their stalls sooner than in the past -- and filling up the entry boxes. The initial thumbs-ups earned during morning workouts were repeated on opening weekend.
"I don't know if it's a cure for everything, but it's better than it was last year with all the breakdowns," declared trainer Greg Geier after his 5-year-old gelding Do the Wave became Arlington's first-ever Polytrack winner by defeating a field of $10,000 Illinois-bred maiden claimers. "This old horse, he's bred for the grass, so he liked it."
Geier, coming off a 1-for-50 spring meeting at Hawthorne Race Course, said he had a number of turf specialists in his barn, and was eager to try them at least once in Polytrack races to see whether their grass form held up, as has often been the case with Polytrack.
Do the Wave's rider, Eusebio Razo Jr., predicted Polytrack will change jockeys' approach to the game. "With a good horse, you can wait as long as you need, and if you're caught wide, I think you're going to have a lot of choices this way: go inside, outside ... so this is going to change the way we ride a lot."
Razo said he'd ridden one horse over Keeneland's notoriously speed-killing Polytrack, a front-runner who'd stopped badly. He said he didn't expect Arlington's track would be similarly biased toward closers.
Trainer Rebecca Maker brought Polytrack lover Buddy Got Even up from Keeneland to capture the Timeless Native Stakes on May 5. Maker praised the new surface, saying, "In general, most horses like it and excel on it. It's just a kinder surface than the dirt. I'm very happy Arlington got it."
Maker, who has raced extensively at Turfway Park and Keeneland, two of the other four North American tracks with synthetic racing surfaces, said her horses generally have been sounder and start more frequently because of Polytrack. "They come out of the races better," she said. "They don't get jammed up like they do on dirt at times."
Maker also downplayed the anti-speed bias, explaining, "The Polytrack is pretty fair, I believe. If you've got a horse that is speed and it's one-dimensional and needs to have the front end, there are always going to be compromises, no matter what surface you're on. It's pretty hard to judge that as the Polytrack. In general it's pretty fair, and it seems like the best horse can win."
Trainer Chris Block declared himself a Polytrack fan, stating, "It's a great surface for horses to train on. Probably some horses won't take to it, but I commend Arlington for installing it." Block's horses seemed to take to it well, with the trainer jumping out on top of Arlington's standings after the opening weekend.
Chicago Sun-Times handicapper Scott McMannis, whose "Professor's Speed Service" has evaluated Chicago area racetracks for some three decades, said he saw no pronounced biases in the initial races over Arlington's Polytrack. "It's still too early to tell," he said, while cautioning that a couple of races with wildly unexpected results indicated that problems could exist.
Jockey Jose Ferrer, who won the first Polytrack stakes race aboard long shot Pirate Saint in the Shecky Greene, said, "It's mostly come-from-behind horses who win. The track is kind of slow. It suited my horse pretty good because he's a come-from-behind sprinter."
Ferrer pointed out that some horses don't like any given surface, so it follows that some just won't take to Polytrack. But he doesn't expect that many of his mounts will be negatively affected by it.
Other riders dispute the notion of a closing or outside bias. "If you're on the best horse, you're going to win," said James Graham, who has ridden regularly over synthetic tracks. And Graham cited another benefit to riders. "Look at my face," he marveled. "It's barely dirty."
Track superintendent Javier Barajas said his crew would have used 112,000 gallons of water on the dirt track by opening day, but used none on the Polytrack. Horsemen have expressed their approval, he said, telling him, "It's like going over a carpet."
Barajas said the cool weather in the Chicago area forecast could pose a problem for his maintenance crew because the crystilline wax particles that make up the track tend to get sticky when the temperature drops. "We have to be careful" in using the Gallop Masters, the harrowing equipment with large floatation tires used in place of tractors to maintain Polytrack, he added.