'Polytrack Lab' Turfway Has More Data, Answers

'Polytrack Lab' Turfway Has More Data, Answers
Photo: Pat Lang
The Polytrack at Turfway Park.

Opening night, Sept. 5, will mark the two-year anniversary of the debut of Polytrack at Turfway Park. The surface, save for maintenance and some tweaking of content, is about as even from the inner rail to the outer rail today as it was in 2005. But life with a synthetic track also has had its ups and downs.

Turfway was the first facility in North America to install Polytrack for racing, so it has served as a laboratory of sorts. But as the 22-day meet at the Northern Kentucky track approaches, officials believe they’re got more data and a better surface.

During the past two winters, track management realized temperature does play a role in synthetic-surface racing. Problems with the surface--primarily clodding and sticking--led to replacement of the top layer and experimentation with different types of wax, one of the components of Polytrack.

“We don’t have it all figured out yet, but we’re much smarter today,” Turfway president Bob Elliston said. “Most every single day, it’s an extremely safe racing surface. We had no catastrophic breakdowns this summer (during off-season training), and I think that speaks to delineating what’s most important about the surface.

“If anybody is debating the safety of the surface, I think that’s all wet.”

Statistics for facilities with Polytrack show a marked decline in catastrophic breakdowns. Still, there have been complaints about synthetic surfaces not playing the same in the afternoon as they do in the morning; unconfirmed reports of an increase in soft-tissue injuries; a general slowing-down of horses and changes in the way races are run; and a shift away from early speed that has confounded and alienated handicappers.

As far as wagering goes, the numbers don’t indicate handicappers are shying away. Turfway, Arlington, Del Mar, Keeneland, and Hollywood Park experienced handle growth after the switch to synthetic surfaces. Fractional and final times on some synthetic surfaces have been slower than usual at first, but in many cases they have rebounded as the surfaces settle.

“Our first meet with Polytrack, the track was a little slow; they were going six furlongs in 1:14 and 1:15,” Elliston said. “But most people here said, ‘I’m not worried about speed. I’m worried about the safety of the horses.’ I think our ability to provide a consistent surface has made everyone more comfortable.

“We probably overestimated the simplicity with which we could maintain Polytrack, but we’ve still seen a more than 40% reduction in labor, materials, and time associated with maintenance.”

The job of maintaining Polytrack at Turfway belongs to Jeff Chapman, who took over as track superintendent from his brother, Dan, in August. Chapman has developed a regimen for Polytrack maintenance and also keeps a detailed log that provides data used to maintain the surface.

Once a day, a Gallop Master machine is used to fluff the top 2 1/2-3 inches of material. Twice a month, a “power harrow” is used to mix the top five inches of material. Once a month, a roto-tiller follows the harrowing machine.

“That brings everything up so it doesn’t get hard underneath,” Chapman said. “But mostly all you’ll see (on a daily basis) is a Gallop Master. We haven’t put any water on it all summer, and if you add it all together, we’ve probably only gotten about a half-inch of rain. Water can be a help--it can tighten up the surface--but it’s not a have-to-have thing.”

Chapman was a member of the “graveyard shift” when Turfway had a conventional dirt surface that in the winter sometimes required 24-hour maintenance in an attempt to get the track ready for training and racing each day. It wasn’t unusual for the surface to freeze and then thaw into dirt soup that rendered it uneven; at times, the backstretch would be sloppy and the homestretch good or fast depending on where the sun was shining, he said.

“If it got below 40 degrees with sand, you had to worry about freezing,” Chapman said. “Sand will freeze above 32 degrees.”

Polytrack data maintained by Turfway includes daily workout times and the temperature during workouts. Chapman also performs a depth analysis every sixteenth of a mile around the track and in the chutes. The surface is probed seven inches deep at six points at each pole once a month to ensure the Polytrack is level.

Chapman said thus far, he has found only two “low spots” that were off by only 1 1/2 inches. The old sand-and-dirt surface had to be graded at least twice a day in the winter, he said.

“This surface has 95% less maintenance,” Chapman said. “We went all summer with no complaints and no breakdowns. We mixed in some new wax to cut down on the fibrous material. Come Sept. 5, we’ll evaluate it, and hopefully (the surface) will be in the evenings like it is in the mornings.”

Elliston and Chapman said the new wax has kept the material from sticking to machinery, which is considered a good sign. On a recent morning after training, the inside of the surface, after a circuit of the Gallop Master, was spongy and appeared moist, while the outside, where most of the horses had galloped, was firmer. That is the desired result, Elliston said.

“We added the new wax to help with the stickiness,” Elliston said. “Our problem--and it was a limited problem--was in the winter time (when temperatures fluctuate near the freezing mark).”

The Turfway meet will run through Oct. 4 with racing on a Wednesday-through-Sunday schedule. Post time is 7 p.m. EDT on weekdays and 1:10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The marquee Kentucky Cup Day of Champions is set for Sept. 29.

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