As officials and horsemen at Turfway Park work daily to find an optimum Polytrack surface for winter racing, there is growing sentiment the synthetic material is affected by temperature or swings in temperature.
Recently, horsemen have expressed concern over the balling-up of Polytrack, which is a mixture of sand, rubber, carpet fibers, and wax. Though the surface itself is uniform, they said collection of the material in the hoof and shoe could lead horses’ legs to hit the ground unevenly.
From Jan. 1-Feb. 11, there were four catastrophic breakdowns at Turfway--two during racing and two during training hours--said Dr. Nancy Davis, state veterinarian for the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority. Last year in January and February, there were none on Polytrack, but in 2005 on the old dirt surface, there were 13 fatal breakdowns the first two months of the year.
“There’s no question trainers are concerned, and Turfway is communicating with us,” said Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. “The cushion was balling up, and we’re dealing with that problem. With that said, people recognize it’s a much better surface compared to the old dirt track. They want Polytrack to work--even the guys with the strongest concern."
During the winter of 2006, when there were no catastrophic injuries, there were rampant complaints about “kickback” of the material during races. That in part led management to change the surface in August by adding Spandex and cabling material. The surface got much quicker--perhaps too much so--and apparently didn’t play well when unusually cold temperatures set in over Kentucky.
“Without question, the horsemen felt the kickback and slower times were not that big an issue compared with what’s going on with the balling-up in the feet,” Maline said. “It seems to be temperature-controlled. Every day we’re checking the temperature and what maintenance was done to the track. We’re meeting on a daily basis.”
Woodbine, the Canadian racetrack that installed Polytrack in the summer of 2006, experienced problems when the temperature dropped. Conrad Cohen, president of the Ontario HBPA, indicated officials are looking for answers because “there’s nothing in the material that’s freezable.” Horsemen at Woodbine requested to use toe grabs on the surface.
“There are tremendous benefits to the new surface, such as soundness, consistency, drainage, and absorbtion of shock,” Cohen said. “It’s kind of like a new pair of running shoes. But we haven’t had time to totally evaluate it in terms of temperature. A total evaluation of the surface cannot be made in such a short period of time because of inconsistency of climate.
“It did appear at different temperatures to have kickback, and some horsemen had concerns about track consistency.”
Before the Turfway surface was refined in 2006, one local veterinarian, Dr. John Piehowicz, said he had one catastrophic breakdown among horses in his care in 13 months. He said he has had two this winter, and a third horse that needed to have a plate and screws surgically inserted.
Piehowicz, who also practiced at Turfway when the dirt surface was in place, said “the entry phase of stride creates an uneven dissipation of forces up the leg” in horses, and that could be part of the problem. Trainers have made similar comments in reference to the balling-up of the material.
Much of the evidence is anecdotal. For instance, one trainer said the balling-up occurs when horses are walked from the barn area to the paddock, while there is little sticking during a race because of the speed factor. In the paddock, trainers and jockeys have likened it to horses walking on stilts.
Turfway president Bob Elliston said it appears temperature does affect the surface, and when the material is wet, it’s not as sticky.
“We’ve had 15-16 straight days when the temperature hasn’t been above 25 degrees,” Elliston said. “These elements may have the ability to contribute to changes in the surface; the question that comes up is the stickiness issue.”
Maline said the original Polytrack surface installed at Turfway had larger chunks of rubber in the top layer that may have contributed to consistency. When the top two or three inches of new material were installed last summer, the rubber was covered up, but recently it has been mixed with the new material.
In December, there were complaints the surface was too hard and fast. During the December 2006 Holiday meet, there were five catastrophic breakdowns compared with three during the 2005 Holiday meet on Polytrack.
“We’ve had a regular maintenance schedule that has provided a better cushion,” Elliston said. “We’ve also had slower relative times. These are things we are continuing to learn and improve upon. Our desire is to have the surface behave like it did (in 2006) in this type of weather. We’d like to have the best parts of the surface all the time."
Elliston said Feb. 12 there have been no catastrophic breakdowns in almost three weeks.
State statistics show nine ambulance runs--a few for cuts or blood from the nostrils--in January 2007, and a comparable number a year earlier. In 2005 and 2006, records weren’t kept for training hours.
Davis said with 1,400-1,500 horses racing each month, it’s hard to guage the statistical impact of a small increase catastrophic breakdowns. She also said the conditions vary from year to year.
“It’s a different track than we had last year, but it’s also a different winter,” she said in reference to the milder winter of 2006.
There are reports from the backstretch that a number of horses have been injured this winter at Turfway and won’t race again, though the information isn’t documented. Elliston said he wouldn’t comment on speculation.
Piehowicz said there is another factor: There could be horses with physical issues running in races because of the Polytrack surface and its tendency to be kinder on them than traditional dirt.
“That would be an unfortunate situation if trainers chose to run horses like that,” Elliston said. "This surface can’t restore soundness; it was designed to maintain soundess. It can’t work miracles. I have enough trust in the training community not to push horses beyond what’s reasonable.”
There is concern from horsemen that perhaps not enough due diligence has been performed on Polytrack and how it could be impacted by temperature. Horsemen suggested the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, which licenses tracks, get involved in studying the surface in an attempt to maximize its potential.
KHRA executive director Lisa Underwood couldn’t be immediately reached for comment on whether the KHRA plans to examine the situation.
Turfway, meanwhile, has changed its first post time from 5:30 p.m. to 1:10 p.m EST Feb. 14-15 because of expected cold temperatures. Elliston said the move is weather-related, not Polytrack-related. Horsemen have suggested the surface, in very cold weather, changes when the sun goes down; Maline noted a switch to training hours of 11 a.m.-2 p.m. has proven to be helpful.
“When I see a forecast for 18- or 19-degree weather, I know the temperature is going to be warmest in the afternoon,” Elliston said. “It will be more convenient (for horsemen and patrons). And if it gets too windy (with a low wind-chill that impacts jockeys), we’ll cancel anyway.”
The evening of Feb. 8, jockeys begged off riding the last seven races because of a combination of a wind-chill factor of about zero and surface conditions.