Racing into the Synthetic Surface Era
Why Keeneland Turned to Polytrack
Nick Nicholson Nick Nicholson - President & CEO, Keeneland Association

Ogden Mills Phipps: At the conclusion of his Round Table presentation on medication two years ago, trainer John Ward implored people in this industry to look for ways to develop safer racing surfaces for our horses regardless of the cost involved.

The Keeneland Association has always been a leader in this industry and its management team shared John Ward's sentiment about safer racing surfaces.

They actively sought information about the use of all-weather racing surfaces from the international types who attended their sales and participated in their racing program. And they eventually decided to bring Polytrack to this country.

Nick Nicholson is here today to tell us why Keeneland opted for the synthetic surface and what the installation process has been like.

Bob Elliston will then spend a few minutes telling us about Turfway Park's experience with Polytrack so far.

Thank you both for being here.


Nick Nicholson: Thank you.

We have been asked to deal with the question of "Why Keeneland Turned to Polytrack."

The answer in many ways is very simple. We were not satisfied with the status quo: the status quo of our track and the status quo of other racing surfaces across North America. We felt that in these modern times surely there is a better way. So some years ago, we began to seek alternative solutions.

One of the unique and wonderful things about Keeneland is that horsemen from all over the world come to Keeneland to buy horses, and representatives of Keeneland travel the world to promote our sales. In recent years, people from 48 states and 40 different countries have purchased Thoroughbreds at Keeneland. So we began to inquire of these people from all over the world as to improvements in their country in surfaces.

It was through this search that the progress being made with the so-called all-weather surface in England stood out to us as exceptional. Two of the aspects that were most impressive to us were, first, that it was being done under official racing — the surface at Lingfield and since then at Wolverhampton and Kempton Park — and that these race courses were being increasingly accepted by trainers and owners in their areas. Second, the surface was also being increasingly accepted as a training surface. We learned that Newmarket was building more and more gallops with the synthetic surface and that trainers who had the choice of training on those wonderful grass gallops were choosing the newer synthetic surface to work their horses.

Members of our staff, led by Rogers Beasley, and later our track superintendent, Mike Young, visited these and other private facilities in England and came back with extremely favorable reviews. We invited officials from England to visit Keeneland. We invited the chief of operations of Newmarket, for example, and we learned much from these visits.

We actually laid a patch of the surface at Keeneland so that we could see how it would respond to Kentucky weather. When the surface did well during one of the hottest summers on record and then it did not freeze during the now famous ice storm of Kentucky in the year 2003, which gives you an idea of how long we have been working on this, we became even more intrigued.

Keeping our board fully informed, we decided to take action and the next appropriate step was to put the surface on our own training track. We announced that we would let a full year transpire in order to study how the surface would acclimate to all differing types of weather before we would make any future decisions.

Before the year was up, Turfway's management, of which Keeneland is a 50% partner, was convinced that this was the direction that they wanted to go. They approached us and we jointly decided to install the system at Turfway last summer. You will hear the details of Turfway's first-year experience in the next presentation.

Once our year was complete and the results were analyzed, it was clear the training track experiment exceeded our expectations, and it was undisputedly clear that this was a superior surface for the health and safety of horses. The old adage of doing something that is in the best interest of the horse certainly applies here.

The Keeneland board decided unanimously and enthusiastically to make the changeover of our racing surface to Polytrack. We are in the final stages of that conversion now and our fall meet this October will be conducted with the new surface. So, that is an update on why we started the process and how we reached our decisions.

We would also like to share this morning some of what we have learned through these years of searches and trials. Perhaps first and foremost, the system provides a surface that is safer and more consistent. Our experience has led us to the conclusion that this is a superior surface to the traditional dirt surfaces of North America.

Another conclusion is that the secret to this is not just in the surface. It is in the overall system, including a revolutionary approach to drainage. This system utilizes a vertical drainage system. Moisture drains straight down. There is a sophisticated drainage system below the racing surface and while you cannot see it, it is an essential aspect of the overall operation.

Every track in North America now uses a horizontal drainage philosophy where with gravity and a slightly cambered or slanted track, the moisture is drained to the inside rail. With horizontal drainage a consistent race track from rail to rail is impossible on many days. In fact, once you have experienced vertical drainage the old horizontal system seems archaic and illogical. The Polytrack system incorporates a totally level stretch and backstretch and by the moisture immediately draining straight down, every step a horse takes is consistent and dependable rail to rail.

The Polytrack surface itself is of course also critical to the overall success. It is a combination of materials led by sand, which is the major ingredient, just as it is in most tracks now, but it must be high-grade silica sand. The selection of quality sand is an important step in the overall process.

Also added to the surface are a mixture of shredded fibers, chopped plastics and rubber, all of which is covered with a wax coating.

This surface provides a resiliency, a bounce, almost an energy that propels a horse over the top of the surface. It also has somewhat of a memory or a cushion effect that creates much smaller divots or cuts after a horse runs over the surface.

The wax also creates the effect of repelling water so that the water immediately and easily drains through the surface and out the drainage system. Thus, it is the combination of the surface and the drainage system working in tandem that creates the final result of a safer racing surface.

There have been some scientific studies already confirming the benefit to the horse.

One of the more interesting ones is Dr. Mick Peterson's analysis on the consistency of tracks and the specific action of how a horse's hoof interacts with the surface. He concludes that this is a safer and more reliable surface.

Dr. Sue Stover has also done a study comparing horses' action on dirt, turf and Polytrack. She has also reached similar positive preliminary conclusions.

We have also discovered pleasantly that this superior surface actually costs less to maintain. It is never sealed when rain is approaching, it is watered much less than our traditional dirt tracks, and it needs to be worked much, much less than our tracks. Thus there is heavy equipment on the track much less and so, in many ways, the surface is even more natural.

In closing I would like to emphasize that we did not rush into this decision, nor did we reach it lightly. It was a deliberate decision made after much thought and research.

We are excited about our new track and believe that it is in the best interest of the horse. This is a major initiative that we full well understand will have significant ramifications to the industry.

We would like to invite each and every one of you to visit Keeneland and see all this for yourself. Racing starts on October 6. Thank you very much for your attention this morning.

And now for a report on Turfway's first year's experience is Turfway's very competent president, Bob Elliston.


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