A pretty little harness racing track called The Meadows opened last week in western Pennsylvania, and in that small beginning is the promise of great, beneficial changes in horse racing everywhere. The track is the first in the world to be surfaced not with earth or sand or turf but with a hoof-pampering synthetic carpet. Horsemen praised it lavishly, and visiting track operators expressed lively interest. The president of a rich New York raceway declared on the spot, "If it is as good as it looks, I want it."
He wants The Meadows' magic carpet because:
1) It is impervious to rain and frost and thus removes most of the misery and danger to horse and driver from bad-weather racing.
2) It reduces the risk of horses going lame, in any weather.
3) It should slash the very high cost of track maintenance to a paltry few thousand dollars a year.
4) With off tracks eliminated, bettors could anticipate truer form and in the long run might increase their wagers.
5) Del Miller, president of The Meadows, was the man who chose to install it. Trainer, driver and breeder extraordinary, Miller is harness racing's outstanding individual. When Miller acts, harness people pay strict and respectful attention.
The synthetic's substantia] price—the 5/8-mile, 80-foot-wide Pennsylvania strip cost $750,000—will keep it from sweeping the country overnight. All interested tracks will first study the full 50-night meeting at The Meadows to be certain that the surface is indeed all that it appears to be. The larger tracks, those most able to afford it, and smaller ones that spend heavily to cope with rain and freeze-ups, should be the next customers. The harness tracks will be first. Major Thoroughbred officials will have to be convinced that the surface is acceptable to trainers, jockeys and horse owners. Executives of the flat tracks will particularly study a series of Thoroughbred exhibition races to be run this summer at The Meadows. Combination tracks, where harness and flat racing alternate (e.g., Chicago's Washington Park, California's Santa Anita Park), must determine whether one synthetic strip suits both trotters and running horses.
Apart from these understandable reservations, the most serious question raised about the surface is that it would eliminate a traditional "sporting" quality of dirt-track racing. Good horses, the argument goes, should race under varying conditions. Fans who have gone out to cheer a favorite only to find him scratched because of muddy footing may be inclined to snicker at this reasoning. Harness reinsmen and jockeys who are mud-splattered on wet tracks and clobbered with clods of dirt on dry ones, and who must risk serious injury when the footing is tricky, will laugh out loud.
What the 7,461 opening night spectators at The Meadows saw, first of all, was a tan racing surface that looked very much like an ordinary dirt track—except for lighter patches here and there that will soon be sunburned to the basic color. There had been a drenching midday rain. Horsemen agreed that a typical dirt-and-sand racing surface would have been slimy and treacherous that evening. The synthetic surface, however, was safe and spectacularly fast; all but two of the nine race winners trotted or paced the fastest mile of their careers.
The racegoers acted exactly like racegoers everywhere. They were oblivious to the track surface during each dash; they jiggled and yelled and watched the action. Inexperienced as many of them were in the matter of pari-mutuel betting, which was being introduced in the Pittsburgh area for the first time, they wagered the reasonably healthy sum of $181,134. If the people liked The Meadows, the horsemen loved it. "I just wish," said George Sholty, the superb young driver, "that I could gather up this surface and take it with me wherever I race."
What is this revolutionary stuff? Where did it come from?
It was once merely the dream of a Thoroughbred trainer, Johnny Nerud, the saddler of the 1957 Belmont winner, Gallant Man. Nerud was appalled by the number of breakdowns among 2-year-old horses on existing tracks, which he estimated at 50% of each year's expensive crop. He badgered William L. McKnight, board chairman of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company and owner of the Tartan Stable, which Nerud trains, to find something better. McKnight badgered his research staff. The solution eluded his brightest Ph.Ds. But a half-educated ex-farmboy working in the 3M labs brewed the soup that worked. "Ted Buchholtz," says one of his associates, "is not a chemist. He is just a good cook." Buchholtz' liquid mixture, the ingredients of which are a company secret, jelled in a few minutes, becoming both tough and resilient; 3M named it Tartan.
Three years ago Nerud laid a walking ring of the stuff outside his barn at New York's Belmont Park. Horses could not seem to wear it out. Nor could cars wear out a Tartan parking-lot strip at 3M offices in St. Paul. Nor could spike-shoed batters damage the Tartan on-deck circles at the Twins' baseball park.
When Del Miller heard about it he thought it would be perfect for a trotting track. He headed a group of Washington County, Pa. businessmen who were to back The Meadows. Miller wanted a practical test of the synthetic. Last. July, 3M poured a 20-foot-wide strip on the private half-mile training track of Horseman Max Hempt at Mechanicsburg, Pa. Leading drivers worked trotters on it and agreed with Miller that it was practical.
Hempt, an amateur driver, and Trainer Marvin Parshall exercised 15 racehorses on the strip all winter long. "It was the coldest winter I can remember," Hempt says, "but we only lost one day of training, and that was because it was too cold for the men, not the horses. There was no frost heave in the track. When it iced up we just scraped the ice away and kept training."
Hempt and Miller agreed, however, that the trial strip was a touch too hard. So 3M brewed a batch of Tartan with 25% more resiliency for The Meadows. Buchholtz describes Tartan as a "synthetic resin" of great durability, which has resilience but, significantly, does not have the instantaneous rebound, or "fight-back," as he puts it, of rubberlike products. "There is a delayed reaction when a horse's hoof strikes it," he says. "This means that it does not immediately spring back and throw the horse off stride. Best of all, a horse doesn't bottom on it. It forms a uniform cushion all the way around."
Thin but tough
The surface at The Meadows was laid in 10-foot-wide strips over two inches of asphalt resting upon a foot-deep base of crushed rock. The Tartan is an inch deep on the inner 20 feet, where racing wear and tear are greatest, diminishing to half an inch on the outer 20. Small granules of Tartan are worked into the top surface as additional shock absorbers. Buchholtz foresees the need of only an occasional light, inexpensive spray coating of Tartan on the inside 20 feet in years to come.
"If I had built a dirt track," says Miller, "I would have needed $100,000 worth of maintenance equipment. All I've had to buy is one little $8,000 sweeper to clean up the manure dropped by the horses. The biggest saving of all is in the horses themselves. Mud pulls horses apart. They float over this stuff. Some people say they have wet-weather tracks. What that means is they scrape off what little cushion there is when it rains and let the horses go on a track as hard as pavement."
On opening night observers saw unusual proof of the track's merits. At the start of the second race, for greenish pacers, the pole horse went into a violent break and fell, jerking one leg completely out of her hobbles. There might have been a massive multi-horse accident. But Julie, the 3-year-old filly who fell, simply picked herself up and jogged back to the paddock, and all the other horses stayed smoothly on gait. On a dirt track Julie would have been badly skinned and bruised.
"She just got scared and broke when all those horses came pounding in on her," said Driver Denny Moore. "She'd never had the rail before. I doubt whether she would have been able to get up off a dirt track. Thanks to this one, she's all right. Nothing's hurt but my feelings."
Walter Gibbons, general manager of the Lexington, Ky. trotting track, probably spoke for the majority of low-budget track operators when he said: "If I could afford it, I would put it in."
Martin Tananbaum, president of New York's Yonkers Raceway, that thriving betting palace which, together with rival Roosevelt Raceway, accounts for nearly half the nation's harness racing pari-mutuel handle, was talking like a man who had already decided to get out his checkbook: "It costs us $200,000 a year to keep our half-mile track in shape. This thing could pay for itself in a few years. There is no question in my mind that the people who can afford it are going to buy it."
Meanwhile 3M is talking up Tartan for a dizzying array of other uses, including football fields. There is already an experimental 110-yard sprinter's track at California's San Jose State College, and Track Coach Bud Winter is delighted with its uniformity and springiness. Followers of track are aware, of course, that Bob Hayes achieved his 100-yard world record of 9.1 seconds the other day on a rubberized strip at St. Louis. Dirt and cinders, it seems, have never had it so bad.