Short Route in final race on Del Mar dirt
Last updated 10/6/2006 at Noon
If the California Coastal Commission approves the installation of a synthetic dirt track at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, the ninth race September 6 at Del Mar will have been the final race on the natural dirt surface. Short Route, a four-year-old filly stabled at the San Luis Rey Downs Thoroughbred Training Center, was one of the horses in that likely final dirt race.
Short Route, who had won three of her previous ten races, finished seventh in the CERF Handicap stakes race September 6. “She kind of almost did the same thing she did last time,” said trainer Joe Herrick.
In her previous race Short Route stumbled and tore a shoe. Short Route also hit herself at the start of the CERF Handicap. “One of those things that happens,” Herrick said.
Vikki’s Honor won what will likely be the final true dirt race at Del Mar, but Short Route participated in the possible final race on that surface. “I think the track will be much kinder on horses,” Herrick said of the change. “With these hard tracks we have out here, it’s tough.”
There are now several manufacturers of synthetic dirt surfaces, although the only one currently being used in North America is Polytrack. Polytrack was first introduced in England in 1987 and was created by Martin Collins Enterprises, which develops synthetic racing surfaces for racecourses and thoroughbred training facilities. The first Polytrack facility was installed at Richard Hannon’s gallop in Wiltshire, and in 2001 England’s Lingfield Park Racecourse opened with a new Polytrack surface.
Polytrack consists of multiple layers. The top layer, which is approximately seven inches deep, consists of polypropylene fibers, recycled rubber, and silica sand. The polypropylene fibers are cut at various lengths, mixed with the other materials, and coated with wax. That allows the surface to remain in place even after heavy use or significant climate changes. The seven inches of the top layer are harrowed loosely on the top and compacted on the bottom. Underneath the Polytrack layer is a base consisting of eight inches of gravel and two inches of asphalt. The drainage portion uses longitudinal drains and cross drains, so water flows vertically through the materials through the drainage system which carries water away from the track as opposed to the horizontal draining of conventional dirt tracks which can compromise the track’s condition.
Polytrack made its American debut on the 5/8-mile training track at Keeneland in 2004. In September 2005 Turfway Park in Kentucky became the first North American track to hold races on the Polytrack synthetic surface. In 2006 Toronto’s Woodbine track initiated its Polytrack era.
Hollywood Park will utilize a synthetic surface for its winter meet. “I have a feeling that they’re all going to use it,” Herrick said.
The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club hasn’t yet decided on a specific brand but plans to have the surface ready for 2007 if the Coastal Commission gives its consent. “If it works out positively there we’ll be putting in synthetic surface in January,” said Del Mar Thoroughbred Club general manager Joe Harper.
Because the cushioning provides secure footing, leg and back injuries are expected to be reduced. That will likely increase field sizes as trainers will be more willing to enter various races, and if horses can run more frequently due to the reduced surface stress the field size will also likely increase from that cause.
“The first thing we’re looking at is a reduction in catastrophic injuries,” Harper said. “Looking beyond that I’m hoping to see an increase in the field size.”
The field size increase has been the case at other tracks, and the European and Turfway Park tracks have also seen success in terms of reducing injuries. “It really gives me a great deal of confidence that this is the right way to go,” Harper said.
Since Coastal Commission clearance is necessary, environmental testing on synthetic surfaces has been performed in which water was run through the product into a fish tank. There were no apparent adverse effects on the fish. “The lab was very pleased with the results,” Harper said.
The San Luis Rey Downs Thoroughbred Training Center has a natural dirt surface, so the horses will need to adjust to the synthetic track, possibly by being shipped to a barn at the racetrack a few days prior to the race. “It’s going to be a little bit different for them,” Herrick said.