Back on track
Arlington looks to give horses a leg up with a new surface.
Todd Pletcher, one of the nation’s top horse trainers (he’s raked in more than $7 million in racing), is buying into it. And he’s not the only one: No fewer than eight trainers who have a horse running in Saturday 5’s Kentucky Derby are also on board.
It is Polytrack, and it’s what Arlington Park has banked about $11 million on in the hope it will spur a reversal of fortune from the 25 horse fatalities the track saw during the 2006 racing season.
While never conceding that the old track was faulty, Arlington and its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., recognized they had to do something to repair the public beating they took last year, as horse after horse had to be destroyed. Three experts (two of them working at the behest of the Illinois Racing Board) were called in to assess the track’s condition, but each deemed it safe for racing.
So why did they drop all that coin to install the Polytrack surface over the off-season? “The safety of the horses and the jockeys is paramount,” says Dan Leary, director of communications for Arlington. “Losing that number of horses is just unacceptable.”
Track officials took a harder look at other tracks around the country for possible alternatives. They fixed their gaze on Kentucky’s Keeneland, one of the nation’s preeminent racecourses, which both uses and manufactures Polytrack. Since installing the track, Keeneland has seen a steady increase in its field size for races, and a steady (some might say dramatic) decrease in the number of fatalities.
It’s the perception that the racing surface is safer that persuaded Pletcher to house a full barn of his horses at Arlington for the first time ever. And when you tune into the Run for the Roses on Saturday 5, you’ll see at least eight horses that have prepared by training at Keeneland.
Polytrack is basically a composite of recycled materials, such as spandexlike rubber, jelly cable (think wiring casings) and carpet fibers, that’s coated in wax and then combined with a ton of silica sand that makes up about 90 percent of the track (and is manufactured locally in Illinois). It’s like the horses will be “running on a rubberized carpet,” according to Leary. Compared with the old track—a limestone base of varying grades topped with sand, silt and clay—the new synthetic track should provide more cushion and be more forgiving to the thoroughbreds. Arlington also hopes to lure more horses per race through an increased veterinary presence.
And since Polytrack is porous, you won’t hear any more talk about horses whose fathers and mothers were “mudders” (horses that run well in wet or sloppy conditions). While that classic racetrack bit was funny on Seinfeld, a wet track can cause more than a few horses to scratch. As the logic goes, the more horses you have racing thanks to either a drier track or fewer injuries, the more wagering you’ll have thanks to that increase in the odds. And more wagering means bigger purses for the races and fatter pockets for track owners. “We estimated that if we can increase our field size by a half a horse per race,” Leary says, “it would increase wagering by $50,000 [per race]. Now we’ve got the track. If we can work on the other front, and increase our purses, then we can get Arlington back to where it was in the early ’90s, where it was [one of] the top five racetracks in the country.”
...And they’re off at Arlington starting Friday 4.