Different path to success
New synthetic surfaces are reducing injuries and leveling the playing field.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published May 2, 2007
What lies down the track for thoroughbreds and their chances of becoming the next Triple Crown winner? Perhaps a surface called Polytrack.
The synthetic turf that lessens the shock and pounding on horses could at least be part of the picture, possibly even prompting a gradual shift away from the breed for speed mentality and back toward durable, long-striding horses with greater endurance. And greater endurance could be the key to a Triple Crown contender conquering Belmont's unforgiving, mile-and-a-half third leg.
Polytrack, which resembles a dirt track, isn't the only synthetic surface on the market - California's Hollywood Park, for instance, has Cushion Track, made by Equestrian Surfaces in Burnley, England. But Polytrack is getting most of the attention.
According to the company's Web site, the surface creates a "unique cushioning effect that is kind to horses and helps reduce injuries to the back and legs and provides secure footing that still allows the give necessary for the horse to perform to the best of its ability. The surface also reduces kickback and maintains uniformity, even in various weather conditions."
The surface is made from a substance called polypropylene fiber, recycled rubber and silica sand, all coated in wax. It has been used in England for 20 years and incidents of injuries have decreased.
Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., was the first U.S. track to install it in 2005 and last season Polytrack was unveiled at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., where long-shot Dominican stunned favored Street Sense and the Kentucky Derby field with his victory April 14 in the first Blue Grass Stakes run on the surface. The $8-million makeover followed a string of breakdowns on Keeneland's dirt track. In the fall of 2004, there were six catastrophic breakdowns at the track, and three in the fall of 2005. But only one was reported last fall on Polytrack, and the average size of the field increased (from 8.97 in '04 to 10.02 in '06).
While none of the Triple Crown tracks has any immediate plan to install a synthetic surface, the California legislature mandated that all its tracks install Polytrack or synthetic turf by 2008, when Santa Anita hosts the 25th Breeders' Cup.
A reduction in fatal injuries - such as the one suffered by lightly raced Derby winner Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness at Pimlico - is certainly a huge consideration. But another significant trend has emerged.
"Polytrack doesn't seem to be conductive to speed," said veteran trainer John Servis, who rose to prominence guiding the career of 2004 Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones. "A lot of horses look like they have to come home strong on it. And a lot of grass horses seem to run very well on the Polytrack. So I think you're going to slowly start to see people get back into that distance, European breeding."
Change in strategy
Keeneland, according to Servis, had been notorious as a speed-favoring venue.
"And the first year they put that Polytrack in, those horses in front would run to about the head of the lane and then they'd back up," he says. "Subsequently, after about two or three weeks into the season, now you'd see all the jockeys - instead of trying to get to the lead - sitting and waiting and not letting their horse run until they turned for home."
Polytrack may have another effect. In reducing injuries, the surface may keep owners and trainers from rushing their prize investments into racing retirement on lucrative stud farms.
"If Smarty had the benefit of training on Polytrack every day, he might still be running," says Servis. After nine hard races in eight months, however, owners Roy and Patricia Chapman couldn't risk Smarty getting injured and losing out on the mega-millions from breeding him for years to come.
Extending a horse's racing career past age 3 may not have any immediate Triple Crown ramifications, but Polytrack and similar products might lead to stronger, sounder future generations of Triple Crown contenders.
Synthetic surfaces don't hold all the answers, though.
"Horses will always get hurt, no matter what," says three-time Eclipse Award winning trainer Bob Baffert, whose thoroughbreds have won the first two legs of the series three times.
Notional, ranked seventh in the Associated Press' top 10 on April 8 with two firsts and a second in three Derby preps, fractured his left front ankle April 14 on Polytrack during a routine training gallop on the surface at Keeneland.
And concerns arose at Turfway in February, with reports that cold weather had caused Polytrack particles to ball up in the concave hooves of horses. The danger: Hooves can then hit the turf unevenly, causing leg stress and possible fractures.
Baffert thinks Polytrack may help, but he contends the big problem is subpar upkeep on dirt tracks:
"I don't think track maintenance is as good as it used to be. A lot of (race venues) are in trouble and the surface is the last thing that they really upgrade. We used to run on dirt, and now we're getting injuries that we never used to because everybody is going to sand. That may help the track when it rains.
"But then they just seal it," he adds, referring to rolling the surface to pack it down, "and it makes it rock hard and hurts the horses."
(Tampa Bay Downs has no immediate plans to switch to a synthetic surface and is considered a well-maintained track.)
With all the factors working against it, has the Triple Crown, last won by Affirmed in 1978, become an unrealistic goal?
"It'll happen," Baffert says. "You need a really good horse, a durable horse. And you need a really smart rider."
Billy Turner, trainer of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, thinks the emergence of several Arab stables could be a key. "They're breaking horses their own way, racing them on their own schedule, and that kind of thinking is what will produce a good horse. They're not breeding those horses to sell. So they have no excuse to not bring some very good horses up to the Triple Crown, where there's a good chance that if they can win the first one, they can win the other two.
"But as soon as you start breeding to sell, forget about it. And forget about the Triple Crown, too."
Adds Hall of Fame jockey and NBC analyst Gary Stevens, who portrayed legendary jockey George Woolf in the 2003 Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit:
"I don't know if it will ever happen again."
Dave Scheiber can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8541.
Special thanks for their valuable contributions to this series: Mike Kane, communications officer for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; Francis LaBelle Jr. of New York Racing Association communications; Billy Turner, trainer of Hall of Famer and 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew; and Times staff writer Brant James and Times correspondent Don Jensen.