Day At The Track

What’s so new about artificial surfaces?

04:42 PM 26 Dec 2007 NZDT
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Dean Hoffman
Dean Hoffman
USTA Photo

Often Thoroughbred racing is ahead of harness racing in many respects, so I find it amusing that in recent years artificial racing surfaces were all the rage in the running sport. They were billed as the panacea for the sport -- safe for horses, safe for jockeys, and consistent for bettors. But now there is trouble in paradise.

Santa Anita, which installed a product called Cushion Track, has had problems with drainage that prevented horses from using the track.

What the Thoroughbred folks don’t know is that harness racing has been down this path -- or track, if you will -- decades ago. When The Meadows opened in 1963, its surface was the much-ballyhooed Tartan surface developed by Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing.

It was hailed much as the recent innovations in Thoroughbred track surfaces have been. Horses would stay sounder, the surface would be consistent, and grooms wouldn't have to worry about cleaning muddy horses, harness, or sulkies after a race.

Delvin Miller, who always was quick to embrace technology and new ideas, was the impetus behind The Meadows and its artificial surface. The synthetic surface was all big news in the sport at the time; it was called the “rubber” track although that was a simplification.

As I recall, horsemen began saying that horses had stifle problems because the Tartan surface provided such complete traction that it affected the way a horse’s hoof hit the track surface. That seemingly didn’t slow the enthusiasm of other tracks for the new surface. Sure, it was expensive to install, but it required far less maintenance and allowed for more consistency in the footing. That’s good for horses, trainers, drivers, and -- most importantly -- bettors.

You must remember that most tracks then had a clay surface that made racing all but impossible when the heavens opened. A clay track then became a quagmire. It wasn’t safe for horses or participants.

As problems with the artificial surfaces were becoming apparent, there was a move to incorporate more limestone or stone dust into racing surfaces, providing safer footing with far better drainage on rainy nights. Also, harness tracks were being elevated more in the turns and even in the stretches to provide better drainage.

As the popularity of stonedust tracks surged, the artificial surfaces lost their luster and were ripped out of many existing installations. With the right surface, a racing program cancelled due to track conditions was virtually unheard of.

When the concept of artificial surfaces gained a foothold in Thoroughbred racing, it was received with the same unbridled enthusiasm as it was in harness racing four decades ago. I recall that trainers in California endorsed it wholeheartedly as a way to reduce lameness and breakdowns. The California Horse Racing Board, which has been in the forefront of the battle to restore integrity to the sport, responded by mandating that its tracks install the new surfaces.

One of those tracks, of course, is the resplendent Del Mar near San Diego and that forced Hall of Famer Doug Ackerman to switch his winter base to Pinehurst, North Carolina after being at Del Mar a half-century.

If the bugs are worked out of the artificial surfaces at Thoroughbred tracks, could they be installed in a manner suitable for harness racing? It’s impossible to say. You should never say never, but the needs of Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds are different.

In the 1960s, harness racing thought synthetic tracks were the answer to their problems. That didn’t happen. It will be interesting to see what happens in the Thoroughbred game.

by Dean A. Hoffman

ourtesy of The US Trotting Association Web Newsroom

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