IT'S STRONGER THAN DIRT

Horses kick up their heels on this high-tech track
October 23, 1988

The horses were standing in the paddock, waiting to be saddled for the eighth race at Oklahoma City's Remington Park on Sept. 2, when the word came down—the news that trainer Ray Spencer had been leerily awaiting since a torrential downpour struck earlier that afternoon. The rains had drenched the turf course at Remington and briefly left the dirt track looking like an oval river. The word was that the eighth race, which was originally scheduled for 1[1/16] miles on the grass, would be switched to the main dirt track.

At the best of times, such a development would be likely to send a trainer rushing to the stewards for permission to scratch his horse from the race, pleading that his grass specialist did not run as well on the dirt. Some horses don't like to get hit with stinging clods of dirt thrown up by horses in front of them; others, missing the springy, firmer footing of the grass, tend to slip on the harder bottom of a dirt course, lose their confidence and thus won't extend themselves. Worse, horsemen say, slipping can lead to injuries.

Spencer was reluctant to run his 5-year-old gelding North Dip in the eighth, the $15,000 Paul Carris Memorial. In his career as a dirt horse, North Dip had been judged to have such a bleak future that his owner had considered making a saddle horse out of him. Switched to the grass, however, North Dip improved considerably, and by Sept. 2 he had won $90,752 on grass. In consequence, Spencer says, "I was real skeptical running him that day on the dirt." Still, he decided to let North Dip race.

Trainer Steve Hobby also took a shot. He had two grass specialists entered in the race. One of them, Vainglorious, a gelding, was bred in England for the turf and had won all of his money, $47,175, on the grass. Of the other, One of the Proud, Hobby said, "Strictly a grass horse. He wouldn't even train on the dirt. He couldn't beat anybody."

All of which made the stretch run of the Carris Memorial so curious and exhilarating. Farmer Brown, a horse with established dirt form, began to collapse after dashing six furlongs in a solid 1:11. North Dip promptly grabbed the lead and hit the mile mark in 1:36[1/5]—good time—and then drew away to win by 4½ lengths in 1:42[3/5]. Coming from far back was One of the Proud, who took second by a neck. The horse One of the Proud edged out was Vainglorious. Thus the three grass specialists had finished 1-2-3.

"My horse really handled the track good," Spencer crowed.

"It was amazing," Hobby said. Five days later Hobby wheeled Vainglorious back on the dirt at Remington, this time at a mile and 70 yards, and the gelding won by 2½. "The horse runs over the main track here just like he runs over the turf," his jockey, David Whited, said. "He loves it."

Indeed, horsemen and horseplayers were talking mostly about two things in the first week of racing at Remington Park, Edward J. DeBartolo's $94 million state-of-the-art race course, which opened Sept. 1. One cause for conversation was Polly's Rumor, an obscurely bred 2-year-old chestnut filly who, in her first start, won a maiden race by 21 lengths and smoked over the 5½ furlongs in 1:03[1/5] (and in her second race, over six furlongs, won by nine lengths in 1:10). The other was the surface on which Polly's Rumor had run so well.

That surface looks and feels like brown sugar, and springs, under a horse's hooves, like a lush turf course. It is known by its trade name, Equitrack, and it is made of sand bathed in what one of its developers calls "our cocktail of polymers," which coats each grain of sand to make it repel water and, thereby, drain almost instantly. These days Equitrack is being ballyhooed by its advocates as the first all-weather racing surface. In rain or shine, snow or ice—indeed, in perhaps everything but the most extreme weather conditions—it is expected to be the only racing surface to carry just one designation: fast. "It will revolutionize racing," says Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, who served as a consultant for Remington in its decision to install the surface last spring.

In dry weather Equitrack creates no dust and does not have to be watered by sprinkler trucks, as dirt racetracks do. In heavy rains the cushion of the track—its top, softer layer overlying the firmer pad—will not wash away, as is frequently the case with conventional dirt tracks, nor will it become deep and muddy. In winter, unless heavy rains meet with unusually cold temperatures, the track will not freeze. It is, by most accounts, a safer surface for horses and should result in fewer injuries; horses appear to move more smoothly over it than they do over conventional courses.

Don Gordon, who heads up En-tout-cas (USA), the English firm that developed and is marketing the surface, isn't surprised to hear trainers' claims that Equitrack leads to fewer injuries. "This material is intended to reproduce the best qualities of grass, which has a natural elasticity because of its root mass," says Gordon. En-tout-cas has laid a dozen such surfaces for training purposes in Europe and Asia, where grass racing predominates.

David M. Vance had heard about these all-weather gallops, and as the chief administrator overseeing construction of Remington Park—a track that will conduct racing in subfreezing conditions—he decided to take a look for himself. So he and Van Berg flew to Newmarket, England, and Hong Kong, during months of research on Equitrack surfaces. The closer Vance got to the deadline for installing a track, the more he leaned toward making Remington the first racetrack in the world to put in an Equitrack racing surface. It would be a gamble, but he kept thinking of his six years as general manager of Latonia (Florence, Ky.) Racetrack—now renamed Turfway Park—and of the problems caused by freezing winters there.

Dennis Moore, the Remington track superintendent, who was brought up in the business, knew how Vance was agonizing over the decision. "I would never, never have had the nerve to put Equitrack in here," he says. In a sport as tradition-bound as thoroughbred racing, an entirely new racing surface would be a long-shot gamble.

At the 11th hour, May 10, Vance presided over a conference call with 12 consultants, among them Van Berg, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1987 with Alysheba. Vance asked, "Jack, if Equitrack were on Churchill Downs, would you have run Alysheba in the Kentucky Derby?"

"Sure I would have," Van Berg said.

That sealed it for Vance. He wrote a long memo to DeBartolo telling him why he wanted Equitrack for Remington. DeBartolo agreed.

En-tout-cas dug up enough fine-grained Oklahoma sand to cover the mile track and two chutes to a depth of four inches, and then swirled it in those polymers and started laying the racetrack. The day after the meet began, the new surface was put to its first test. It rained so hard on Sept. 2 that during the downpour it was almost impossible to see the backstretch from the grandstand. In about 45 minutes, three inches of rain fell. But after the harrows raked the track following the downpour, the river of water was gone, having drained off the polymeric sand as quickly as it came.

Jockeys relish the going on Equitrack. Horses kick up sprays of water behind them, not muddy clods, and the riders come back from a race as clean as if they had just taken a shower. After seeing the returning jockeys, track veterinarian Rudy Garrison said, "They looked like they'd run through a car wash."

"It was really weird," said jockey Whited, a veteran of 31 years in the saddle, after the running of the Carris Memorial. "You expect to get dirty when it's raining. It was like driving down the highway with your window open—all you could feel was the rain. Horses seem to have the same motion over this as they do over grass—a smoother motion. They don't stumble coming out of the gate; there's no slipping of their hind legs."

Trainers report that their horses are not "running down" on their hind ankles. That is, as some horses stride forward with their hind legs, they tend to skid forward, causing their ankles to drop and scrape across the ground. It's a nuisance, sometimes forcing horses to miss weeks of training while their ankles heal. Horses do not skid on Equitrack.

Not that the surface doesn't have its critics. A number of them said that the Remington course was a good deal harder and more jarring in the morning—when the cool weather seemed to tighten the surface—than it was in the afternoon, when the heat of the sun appeared to expand it, making it deeper, fluffier and more tiring. "The track is too fast in the morning and too slow in the afternoon," says trainer Larry Edwards. "But you have to give them time to work out the kinks."

The track superintendent, Dennis Moore, says that all he needs is time and experience in learning how to best groom the new surface. "As it cures out, with the changing weather, it will be the same in the morning as the afternoon," says Moore. And he might be right. On Oct. 1, a 4-year-old gelding named Silver Icon won a 6½-furlong race in the world-record time of 1:13[3/5]—and it had rained that morning.

Equitrack has received considerable publicity in the industry, and horsemen and track managers around the country are looking carefully at Remington's bold experiment. The possibilities of the surface are staggering. Horses that run as well on the dirt as on the turf? Horses that do not run down? A racetrack without mud and mire? A safer track for horses and riders? A track that is as easy to keep combed and maintained as a crew cut? Vance, now the Remington general manager, understands the implications of what he and DeBartolo have done. For now, all he can do is laugh at the scene that followed the rain on Sept. 2, when the track was drained after the first harrowing and those three turf horses came roaring home in the eighth on the dirt.

"It was like God sent that rain, so we could show off," Vance says. "We made history that day."

PHOTOPHIL HUBERThe Equitrack dries quickly, and clods don't form on it. PHOTOPHIL HUBERVance (left) and Moore expect that the track-condition sign will usually read like this.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)