Is Polytrack the surface of the future?

Updated: August 4, 2005, 1:55 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Keeneland President Nick Nicholson does not, of course, have any idea what the weather is going to be Sept. 7, the day Turfway Park, which is owned by Keeneland and partners, opens its fall meet. But he won't have a problem guaranteeing that the racetrack will be fast, safe and bias free, no matter the weather conditions. Polytrack, he says, is that good.

"Polytrack has the potential to revolutionize racing in North America," Nicholson said.

Can something as simple as rubberized dirt change racing as we know it? Nicholson believes it can and is confident the upcoming Turfway meet will go a long way toward proving it.

The Turfway meet will be the first at a North American racetrack to use the Polytrack surface for racing. (A Polytrack surface was installed at the Keeneland training track in September, 2004). When Turfway opened for training Aug. 2, horses were galloping and breezing over a surface made up of polypropylene fibers, recycled rubber and silica sand covered in a wax coating. Polytrack's inventor, Martin Collins, says that his surface has none of the flaws of a conventional dirt track: It drains so readily that the track is always fast; it is easy and inexpensive to maintain; it is not prone to biases; it is kinder to horses than traditional tracks, which reduces injuries.

Nicholson says that Collins's claims were validated with the experiment at Keeneland with the Polytrack training track, which has held up through extreme heat, cold, snow and everything else Mother Nature could throw at it. The next step was to try it for an actual meet.

"Turfway is used as a laboratory to advance the conduct of racing, including things like safety, the rails, surface, and growing the business," said Turfway President Bob Elliston. "We've turned to the racing product, and when we found out what Keeneland encountered with its training track we started to focus on this. With our winter race dates and the inconsistency that occurs here with our surface because of the weather, this seemed like a natural for us. While it is a significant capital expense, we think it's well worth it in terms of moving our racing product forward and in terms of the safety of the animals and the athletes."

Remington Park tried a similar surface when it opened in 1988 but switched over to a conventional surface three years later, in part because horsemen were reluctant to ship in from other tracks to run over it. In the ensuing years, all-weather, rubberized tracks have improved and have gained acceptance. Two tracks in England (Lingfield and Wolverhampton) conduct dirt racing on a Polytrack surface, and several European training centers also use an all-weather track.

Bettors should appreciate the lack of muddy surfaces, which can throw off form and reduce field size due to scratches. On a Polytrack track, water flows vertically, and not horizontally, through the surface into a state-of-the-art drainage system. Some may appreciate the likelihood of a fairer surface that doesn't benefit a particular running style, particularly at Turfway, which many believe has too often been speed-biased. Racetrack management will certainly appreciate the fact that Polytrack should cut down on cancellations. It won't keep the track open when there is three feet of snow on the ground and no one can get to the track, but the freezing and thawing cycles that often wipe out race days in the winter should no longer be a problem.

"This is going to dramatically cut down on the number of racing days we miss," Elliston predicted.

If Polytrack is as safe as advertised, that should provide even greater benefits. The fragility of the modern race horse has become a crisis for the sport. In 1980, horses started an average of 9.21 times per year. Last year, it was down to 6.57. That has resulted in a significant decrease in the size of fields, which has made racing a less attractive gambling proposition to many. Anything Polytrack can do to reduce injuries and keep horses in training longer will be a tremendous boon to the sport.

"Up and down the line, we've heard nothing but positive comments about the ability to condition a horse over it and the ease of how the horse gets across the ground," Elliston said. "That suggests horses are sounder and they don't require as much in the way of medication to deal with the pains and the nicks horses get. It is a very comfortable and very forgiving surface."

Keeneland will be next. A Polytrack surface will be installed there for the 2006 fall meet, where several major stakes races are held. Should it work as well there as Nicholson expects it will, no one can doubt its benefits. Will Polytrack eventually be everywhere and can it revolutionize racing? Maybe so.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com