Early Returns: Polytrack Experience Pays Off

Turfway Park launched what some officials said they hope is a new trend in American racing Sept. 7 when Regal Reproach rallied from off the pace to win the first race on the new Polytrack.

With a good opening-night crowd on hand under ideal weather conditions, Turfway became the first pari-mutuel track in the United States to offer racing on Polytrack, a mix of synthetic fibers combined with a vertical drainage system. The multimillion-dollar surface is expected to promote safety and help reduce the number of winter cancellations.

Interestingly, the first-race winner has trained regularly on the training track at Keeneland, which has had a Polytrack surface since last September. Trainer Eric Reed said Regal Reproach, owned by Jerry Brumley and Kay Reed and ridden by Inocencio Diego, usually dropped far back on the old Turfway dirt track but was much closer on the new surface.

"(The surface) is just like it is at Keeneland, but a little tighter," Reed said. "He was a lot closer tonight than he was in his last two starts on the turf (at Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort). We noticed last November, a couple of months into this, that horses weren't body sore. I think it's going to keep horses healthier and happier."

Two races do not a trend make, but in the third race, James Wright's Boundary Queen, a 2-year-old first-time starter who finished second in a Polytrack training race won by a colt that subsequently won his career debut in an Ohio stakes, won her career debut in a maiden special weight event for trainer David England and jockey John McKee.

Boundary Queen led most of the way in the 5 1/2-furlong event to win in 1:08 2/5. Regal Reproach won his one-mile starter allowance race in 1:40 3/5. In the second race, Estedad won a six-furlong claiming test in 1:13 2/5.

"It's friggin' awesome," jockey Calvin Borel, who rode Estedad, said of the new surface.

Estedad, owned by Robert Westfall and trainer Jesse Wigginton, trains at Keeneland. "We've been training on it for a year," the trainer said. "We know how it plays. It's very safe and great to have here (at Turfway)."

Turfway hosted dignitaries on opening night, including Martin Collins, the Englishman who developed Polytrack.

"This is a really great honor for me to be here today," Collins said. "This is a great opportunity for my company in England to go forward around the world. I think it's going to be a great success for North America. The less injuries to horses we get has to be good for racing."

Collins received a Kentucky Colonel award from La Juana Wilcher, secretary of the Kentucky Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet, for continuing a tradition of leadership and improvement in the state.

The excitement over the Polytrack debut was tempered somewhat by reluctance by some large stables to enter horses because of changes in the state's race-day medication policy. Turfway filled 10 races for Sept. 8, but the entries were light--only 64 horses in total, with one five-horse field and five six-horse fields.

Racing secretary Rick Leigh said he never has had this much difficulty filling races.

"The hard part is a lot of people that have been really true to us (in the past) are on the fence," Leigh said. "I think the next few days could tell the tale."

Kentucky Horse Racing Authority executive director Jim Gallagher said a meeting Sept. 7 with horsemen at Churchill Downs was eventful.

"It was contentious," Gallagher said. "You could sense a little bit of hostility but it was a productive meeting. I'm hoping it de-escalated the situation."

When asked if he thought the resistance by trainers to enter horses would soon end, Gallagher said: "I didn't get a sense of what the temperature is on that. I tried to allay the fears, and there are significant fears."

Midway through the opening-night card, Turfway president Bob Elliston told the media he has heard secondhand that the entry box would begin filling up the morning of Sept. 8. But he couldn't offer details or confirmation.

Leigh said he's hopeful trainers would become more comfortable with the new regulations--a more restrictive medication policy and more severe penalties--in a few days. He said the nomination deadline for the Sept. 17 Kentucky Cup Day of Champions has been extended by two days to Sept. 9.