Synthetic Surfaces Are on the Fast Track to Being the Norm

If Polytrack or similar surfaces are installed in California as proposed at tracks such as Santa Anita, left, it could eliminate one of the most distinguishable qualities of the West Coast tracks, which are known to favor speed horses.
If Polytrack or similar surfaces are installed in California as proposed at tracks such as Santa Anita, left, it could eliminate one of the most distinguishable qualities of the West Coast tracks, which are known to favor speed horses. (Benoit Photo Via Associated Press)
By Andrew Beyer
Thursday, February 23, 2006

The California Horse Racing Board last week passed a motion that may portend a radical change in American racing, one that could change the nature of the horse-betting game. The board declared that all major tracks in the state "must install a synthetic surface or Polytrack by Dec. 31, 2007" or else have their racing licenses revoked.

Instead of running on the dirt on which Seabiscuit, Silky Sullivan and Spectacular Bid competed, thoroughbreds in the state would race over a surface consisting of polypropylene fibers, rubber and silica sand in a wax coating. These are the components of Polytrack, a synthetic surface that was developed in England and is gaining popularity in the United States.

Kentucky's Turfway Park replaced its traditional dirt track with the synthetic track in September. Keeneland and Woodbine are planning to do the same. "We've had on-track visits from every major racing jurisdiction in North America, plus England, France and Australia," said Turfway President Bob Elliston. "There is significant interest in Polytrack."

Racetrack owners, horsemen and jockeys have all hailed the virtues of a synthetic racing surface. Perhaps I am jaundiced because I usually disagree with the positions of track owners, horsemen and jockeys, but I am wary of a sport filled with Polytrack.

Polytrack was developed in the late 1980s by Martin Collins, who rode and trained jumpers for horse shows until he became interested in racing surfaces. He installed Polytrack in various private training centers in England; in 2001, Lingfield opened for winter racing with a Polytrack surface. Collins's big breakthrough in the United States came when Keeneland installed his surface on a training track. Horsemen liked it, and Keeneland's prestige gave the surface the establishment's seal of approval. In September, Turfway became the first American track to offer racing on Polytrack.

Because it operates throughout the winter, Turfway has always been plagued by weather-related problems. Snowstorms forced cancellations; muddy tracks led to innumerable scratches and small fields that were unattractive betting propositions. But bad weather doesn't faze Polytrack. Instead of turning a track into a sea of mud, water flows through the materials into a drainage system and leaves the racing surface essentially unaffected. Turfway has canceled only one card this winter -- and did so because there was too much snow on the roads, not because of the track condition.

Trainers and jockeys like Polytrack because they believe it is easier on horses than conventional dirt tracks. Their descriptions say that the synthetic surface is more resilient, and that animals act as if they are bouncing over it instead of hitting it with a thud. Polytrack's advocates contend that the surface will reduce injuries and keep horses running more productively, and Turfway's initial experience has supported this claim. "Since we have had Polytrack, we have had three catastrophic breakdowns," Elliston said. "In the comparable period last year, we had 16." Moreover, Elliston observed, horses at Turfway seem able to run more frequently, producing larger fields and better business.

Another of the virtues claimed for Polytrack is uniformity; it supposedly eliminates biases that give an unfair advantage to horses with certain post positions or running styles. Although some handicappers think they have detected occasional biases at Turfway, Polytrack has eliminated the strong speed-favoring bias that often used to determine the results there. Trainer Michael Dickinson, who developed a surface, Tapeta, that is similar to Polytrack, said that synthetic surfaces tend to fall "right in the middle" between the speed-favoring nature of American dirt tracks and the tendency of turf courses to favor horses with a strong late kick.

Is the uniformity of synthetic surfaces necessarily a virtue? California's racetracks are distinctive -- hard and fast and inherently speed-favoring. They force trainers to work their horses fast in order to be in contention early. As a result, California has the quickest thoroughbreds on earth; it is the only place in the racing world where horses regularly speed a half-mile in :44 flat or faster and keep running. Yes, this tough style of training and rating does take a toll on the animals. But does the California Horse Racing Board really want to alter the features that made its sport unique so that the nature of racing at Santa Anita can be more like Turfway Park? Certainly, horseplayers wouldn't be happy about such uniformity. It is difficult enough to find edges in the modern betting game, and many of those edges come from detecting differences in racetracks. If a handicapper knows that the rail was bad at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 4, and that the track favored speed horses on Feb. 20, he can assess horses accordingly and gain insights that other bettors may not possess.

But if the Polytrack advocates prevail, and all racetracks are basically the same, the game will lose many of its subtleties. It might suffer the same fate as harness racing -- becoming too understandable and predictable, producing too many small payoffs, driving gamblers to other activities that offer more challenge and better opportunities for profit. Though the practicality and safety of synthetic surfaces may make them irresistible, a sport filled with Polytrack sounds boringly homogenized.

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