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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

TVG Lobs Polytrack Softballs

- I was quite alarmed by this article on Polytrack from the LA Times that reader Cookie Jill sent along. It paints a not-so-pretty picture, noting the severe problems encountered at Turfway, where there was said to be 14 fatalities this year, and at Woodbine, where CEO David Wilmot called the surface "broken." Martin Collins, the British developer of the surface, is quoted as saying:

"We are on a learning curve here....The waxes alter in hot and cold temperatures. It swells in the hot and tightens in the cold…. We never had to deal with [such variables] in England. It's a very difficult job." [LA Times]
But then, I saw Collins and racing secretary Tom Robbins on TVG's Racing Roundtable, and suddenly, as if by magic, everything was mostly fine. Or so they would have us believe. Just after I got through praising TVG in my last post, they presented this toothless interview - bordering on infomercial - that skirted past and glossed over the serious issues raised in the article. In this softball forum, Collins never raised the concerns about Polytrack in the varying climes of North America that he did in print. When asked by Todd Schrupp why a track should pick Polytrack over its competitors, he responded: "If you want a Rolls-Royce, get a Rolls-Royce." A very curious choice of words, because in the LA Times piece, Wilmot said that "we paid for a Cadillac and got a Chevrolet."

Schrupp didn't press Collins when he basically gave a one-word "yes" response to his asking if the Del Mar surface was different from the others. In fact, according to the Times piece, the difference could be significant. Environmental regulations at the seaside track prohibit the inclusion of a substance called "jelly cable" due to concerns about copper contamination.
The substance is a waste product imported from China — chopped-up, lubricant-coated plastic previously used to insulate stripped copper wire. It was used in Polytrack turf installed at Chicago's Arlington Park and at Keeneland Race Course in Kentucky, where officials call the racing surface "outstanding."
Without the jelly cable, Del Mar's new surface reportedly became "loose" and "soupy" in the warmer afternoon hours, forcing eleventh-hour repairs.

Track officials, exercising further caution in advance of a 43-day meet, informed owners and trainers that they would stable only 2,200 horses during the race meet this year, a reduction of about 200 horses.
But Robbins didn't mention the reduction of the horse population, and instead spoke about how well the track has handled all the traffic. Both he and track president Craig Fravel referred to "minor glitches," whereas the Times piece talks of costly repairs that have already taken place. Robbins did explain a problem that occurred on Monday, when some trainers canceled workouts due to track being too "tight," but it was more in the context of showing the track's responsiveness to horsemens' concerns.

Ironically and tragically, there was a fatal breakdown on opening day; but it occurred on the grass course when Mayor Bozarth had to be put down after the last division of the Oceanside. But the Polytrack seemed to receive positive reviews, though it was most definitely slow. I'd mentioned the slow fractions in the baby race; but as Walter pointed out, it wasn't a case of the riders trying to slow things down. The track is just s-l-o-w, at least at this point. Richard Migliore told the Form:
"It's a very tiring surface....They're gripping it, but it's a lot different from anything they've ever been on. It's going to take some time for some of them to get used to it."

As an aside to handicappers, Migliore added, "You're going to want a horse that makes one run. You don't want a horse that's going to be fighting you."
- Discreet Cat is back on the track! Godolphin Guy Rick Mettee told the Form: "He's jogging sound and we're real happy with him....He'll probably start galloping by the time we get up to Saratoga." But no target return date or race has been announced. Seems a long road to the Classic, even if we really knew that he could get a mile and a quarter.


inthebeginningtherewasace said...

Agreed, TVG seems to have a definite interest in PolyTrack, at least in terms of advertising revenue. Did you see those 2 minute Poly infomercials they ran between some races at Del Mar?

Anonymous said...

Alan, thanks for keeping track of the "follytrack" situation.

A perfect example of the mess goverment can create regulating a private industry.

A few well placed campaign contributions and artificial surface is mandated for all CA tracks, with no historical reference in hot dry weather.

The jury remains out, and due to the legislative inaction in Albany, the NY tracks may just get lucky and actually gain a competive edge if the "follytracks" fail to stand the test of time.

I still say that regular dirt course can be made much safer if track superintendents were give the mandate and the money to accomplish the goal.

Fair Grounds is the perfect example, long considered a "safe" racing surface while consistantly generating slow times.

Michael said...

Ellis is another example of a safe dirt track, that is managed in a way that plays fair, even and safe.

I was not aware of the 14 fatalities at Turfway...

Alan Mann said...

The article isn't really clear about the 14 fatalities at Turfway:

>>The Turfway track initially boasted a dramatic drop in horse fatalities after the switch from dirt to the synthetic surface declining from 24 deaths on dirt in 2004-05 to three on the new Polytrack surface in 2005-06.

However, there have been 14 fatal breakdowns in the latest meets, prompting plans to re-wax the surface in August. >>

Re-reading it, it says "in the latest meets..." so it's actually not clear what time frame they are using.

Unknown said...

The sudden change to Polytrack makes me wonder what is going on behind the scenes. To me, it seems like a few powerful palms were greased. Also, Keeneland has a financial interest in Polytrack. It is natural for anyone involved in horse racing to want to get in Keeneland's good graces.

The most interesting part of the LA Times article comes at the end. The reporter mentions that Del Mar's Craig Fravel and Keeneland's Nick Nicholson are buddies. Of course, both of them deny that friendship had anything to do with Del Mar's decisions. Fravel says he wasn't even on the track's surface selection committee.

However, Fravel admits he did help put together the bidding specs for the committee, one of which was giving preference to bidders with five or more prior installations.

Are there any other synthetic surface makers in the world that can boast five installations other than Polytrack?

Alan Mann said...

Keeneland and Del Mar are also the only U.S. tracks to presently utilize Trakus. So I wonder just how friendly Fravel and Nicholson are?

Anonymous said...

I heard on the radio yesterday that the Hollywood dirt track (in it's last year of usage) had 9 horse fatalities. Their Cushion Track has 12 fatalities. Posing the obvious question, are synthetic tracks REALLY better?

PS - I'm looking forward to seeing Tapeta Surface (currently being installed @ Golden Gate), which was designed by the master horseman Michael Dickinson for use at his Tapeta Farm training center, and has been used there for many years. Regardless of how good it is, however, i think we're stuck with the current product. These places aren't gonna spend $9 million installing a new track, and then take it out a year later. Fatal breakdowns could triple, and they'd probably keep it anyway. That's why i'm taking these "rave reviews" with a grain of salt. What incentice would anyone connected with the racetrack have for pointing out flaws in the surface? Jockey's coments hold the most weight with me, as they're the people who are out there riding on it, and risking their own necks in the process. If there's a problem, you'll likely hear it from them first. I'm sure they've been asked to promote it, however...

Alan Mann said...

Walter - This is from the LA Times article:

>>President Jack Liebau said "there's no question" his new Cushion Track "is better and safer than dirt." He reported four horse fatalities in a 63-day meet.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see the growing doubts and/or jury-is-still-out reports on polytrack from LATG readers! Saratoga absolutely must be protected from this latest West Coast fad du jour unless and until it is conclusively proven to be "the answer"! I am of the belief that polytrack is just one more sop to the poorly bred, infirm race horse crowd. Charlie Hayward take notice! /S/ Green Mtn Punter

Anonymous said...

This is the most ridiculous set of comments I have read on this otherwise informed site. Keeneland and Del Mar just happen to be two of the most forward thinking racetracks in America, no make that the world.

They are each run by first rate, good of the game, health of the horse first professionals. The two men happen to be friends. That makes their forward thinking behavior, whether with Trakus or Polytrack, somehow less than honorable?


Anonymous said...

The only position to take on polytrack is: "Show me". It's going to have a very extensive trial run all over the country, in all kinds of climates and conditions, and then, and only then, at the end of, say, 3 years minimum, will we have a set of reliable data from which to judge it's worthiness. Even if it proves out I would still be very reluctant to advocate for this surface at our historic racetracks as it is just one more thing to wring the "soul" out of the sport. And if your stock is breaking down racing on dirt tracks then buy firmer stock,and/or breed firmer stock,if you want to run on the dirt tracks but don't drag the norm down any more than it already has been by "mandating" artificial surfaces on all racetracks! /S/ Green Mtn Punter

Anonymous said...

The Tapeta surface will debut in a little over 6 weeks at Presque Isle Downs in PA.

Anonymous said...

trainers might be more apt to run unsound horses thinking that the polytrack will 'save' them and the breakdowns won't be as catastrophic. When we talk about breakdowns, they are all not the same. Non synthetic breakdowns might not be as 'dramatic' as when a horse steps on a hard dirt surface and shatters his leg in a million pieces and falls.

A polytrack breakdown might be less dramatic, the horse can just be pulled up without falling down in injuring the rider. I think tracks are very scared of the dramatic, accident causing, melee that is caused by a horse snapping and falling head over heels.

i dont' like them not using the final substance because of water contamination purposes. If you can't install poly the way it needs to be installed, than poly is not for you.

one last doesnt matter if fravel is on the committee or not because whoever IS on the committee knows that he's friends with Keeneland.

He doesn't have to be on the committee, its 'understood'.

Alan Mann said...

>>This is the most ridiculous set of comments I have read on this otherwise informed site. Keeneland and Del Mar just happen to be two of the most forward thinking racetracks in America, no make that the world.

They are each run by first rate, good of the game, health of the horse first professionals. The two men happen to be friends. That makes their forward thinking behavior, whether with Trakus or Polytrack, somehow less than honorable?>>

Thanks much for reading, and I respect your point of view. I was really just being flippant rather than trying to disparage their worthy efforts - and I do consider synthetic tracks to be a worthwhile venture despite the problems we've seen.

But the point from the LA Times article that rototheg was referring to is that Keeneland has a financial interest as Polytrack's distributor, and Fravel, though he did remove himself from the committee, helped write the bidding specs, which favored Polytrack. I don't think it's something insidious that should detract from their honorable efforts on behalf of the horses' safety. But it is the kind of conflict that usually rates a mention here, even if just for S&G.

Anonymous said...

Del Mar = Calder By The Pacific™. There has to be a middle ground between animal safety and refusing to take even the slightest risk of exercising speed. I don't wish to see the Pacific Classic become the fastest two-minutes-and eight-seconds in sports.

Michael said...

I think synethic surfaces certainly have a place at some tracks. A track that is having safety issues (Turfway, Arlington), weather issues (Woodbine, Turfway), unfair bias issues (Keeneland, California)...then yes, install it. But is it the answer? Gee I hope not.

The big question people were asking around the derby with all of the horses working at Keeneland was, "does Churchill need it?" I don't think Churchill has ever been marked as an unfair or unsafe surface (unless you ask the Aussies about the BC Dirt), so that answer should be no.

I think Saratoga is in the same group as CD; why fix it when it isn't broken? I'm sure the powers that be will be smart (plus, NYRA can't afford the $).

Anonymous said...

If next year's Blue Grass is as ridiculous as this year's, Keeneland will have to think seriously about removing Poly before its premier race becomes irrelevent.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the above comment, the problem is that regulators are starting to mandate this surface, so CD and NYRA or its successor may not have a choice. This worries me greatly, especially with no proof that it is any safer.

I have heard there are more "back end" problems in horses training on poly. So while you may avoid some of the catastrophic breakdowns during racing, which is certainly a good thing, there will be just as many injured horses, but with different problems.

Alan Mann said...

>>If next year's Blue Grass is as ridiculous as this year's, Keeneland will have to think seriously about removing Poly before its premier race becomes irrelevent.

There's no question that the Blue Grass was an oddly run race. But it produced an exciting finish, a lot of controversy and discussion, and the Kentucky Derby winner. So I would respectfully ask what was so bad about it?

Anonymous said...

Can't say it enough- polytrack or any synthetic track is not necessarily the answer and in fact could be counter-productive. In NY the only sensible place to install it is at Aqueduct where it will receive a fair test in cold and wet weather conditions- do not even think about it at Saratoga! A "plastic" racetrack at America's most historic and beloved track?! Hopefully never. The famous Austrian classical economist Hayak identified the problems of a socialist economy in terms of "unintended consequences" and we just want to be sure all of the unintended consequences of synthetic surfaces are identified and resolved before rushing to install these surfaces at NY tracks. NY's purse structure and prestige, coupled with a forward looking, market-oriented franchisee, will guarantee NY's continued # 1 position in North American racing, synthetic track or not. Let the other circuits be the test labs for synthetic race track surfaces. /S/ Green Mtn Punter

Anonymous said...

What was so bad about it?

It was, in effect, a turf race. Yes, Street Sense won the Blue Grass and Derby this year but, as a matter of course, trainers are not going to want their colt's last prep for the Derby to be in this kind of race.

Anonymous said...

I know it's late in the game for this thread, but the Blue Grass had lost it's luster as a Derby prep long ago, due to the speed bias of the dirt track.

I am not a proponent of polytrack, but think it will help, not hurt, in attracting potential Derby candidates.

Anonymous said...

I see a two tier system possibly evolving: (1)Synthetic surface tracks and smaller purses for lower grade and/or infirm horses,and horses using the greatest number and dosages of drugs to keep them in training; and (2)Traditional dirt tracks and larger purses for sound, allowance and stakes grade stock. NYRA should hold out at all costs at Saratoga- why be just another "Me, too", synthetic track? Product differentation is key to staying ahead of the competition. /S/ Green Mtn Punter