Barbaro injury spurs interest in new surface


LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) – Horses can take a misstep and break an ankle on any racetrack. The injury to Barbaro, however, has renewed debate over whether such an injury would happen less often on a surface other than dirt.

European-designed Polytrack – a synthetic mixture of wax-coated polypropylene fibers, recycled rubber and fine sand – was a hot topic in horse racing circles even before the Kentucky Derby winner broke down in the Preakness. Several tracks in England have used it for years, and it’s starting to catch on in the United States.

Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., already has installed it, and Keeneland has a Polytrack surface on its practice course. The tradition-rich, picturesque race course in Lexington is now in the process of installing the artificial surface on its main track.

In the weeks leading to the Kentucky Derby, trainer Michael Matz kept Barbaro at Keeneland, partly because of its Polytrack practice course.

There are two primary advantages: easy drainage, allowing for races in practically any weather condition, and safety because of a more even composition across the track.

“If I had a horse that was worth a lot of money, I’d be more comfortable with a horse at a Polytrack than I would on a dirt track,” said Michael Spirito, veterinarian at the Hagyard-Davidson-McGee hospital in Lexington. “It’s a matter of statistics.”

Most dirt or clay tracks are slightly tilted inward, so when it rains some spots are thicker and others are thinner – making the surface somewhat uneven. On Polytrack, water seeps straight through to a drainage system below, eliminating any clumps that might be found on dirt.

“Just as other sports have progressed, as science has led us to new and safer surfaces in other sports, we think this is a newer and safer surface for our sport,” Keeneland president and chief executive Nick Nicholson.

Besides the cost – estimated at more than $6 million to make the switch from dirt – tradition has been a major impediment. The classic American races have always been run on dirt, just as many famous European ones are run on grass. Secretariat’s record Derby run happened on dirt, so some argue a switch to Polytrack would invalidate that and other marks.

Bob Holthus, who trained Lawyer Ron for the Kentucky Derby, said it’s a shame Keeneland is installing the surface. That track hosts the Blue Grass Stakes, one of the prestigious Derby prep races, and Holthus says it’s better for horses to run on dirt in their final race before heading to the dirt track at Churchill Downs.

As for Barbaro’s injury, Holthus says he doesn’t think a change of surface would have prevented it.

“I don’t think it had anything to do with it,” Holthus said. “Horses make bad steps and they can do it on any kind of surface.”

But after a year of racing on Polytrack at Turfway Park in the Cincinnati suburbs, track officials there contend they have proof that their new surface is safer.

From September 2004 through April 2005, there were 24 catastrophic breakdowns of horses on Turfway’s dirt track. On Polytrack in the same period a year later, there were only three.

“There is absolutely no way we can ensure the safety of the animal – from a clipped heel to a prior injury not known,” said Turfway President Bob Elliston. “We can’t be so naive to believe we’re going to eliminate injuries, but there’s good evidence we can reduce the number.”

Polytrack, created by Martin Collins, has been installed at tracks in England since the 1980s, starting with training facilities. It has been used as a racing surface at Lingfield Park since 2001, and was installed at Wolverhampton Racecourse in 2004.

Earlier this month, the California Senate passed a bill that would compel major horse tracks in that state to install Polytrack or something similar by the end of 2007. Woodbine in Toronto also has announced it will put in Polytrack this summer.

It’s certainly not the first time the American horse racing industry has considered changing surfaces, but many past experiments have proven unsuccessful.

Before Turfway, the last major North American racetrack to install an all-weather surface was Remington Park in Oklahoma City. It opened in 1988 with Equitrack, a polymer-based surface in which sand is covered with a wax coating. But by 1991, the track switched to dirt because the Equitrack surface was starting to melt and causing health problems when horses inhaled kicked-up track.

Keith Chamblin, who was in charge of public relations and marketing at Remington at the time, said the troubles with Equitrack shouldn’t apply to Polytrack.

“There’s been so many technological advancements in the last 15 to 20 years,” Chamblin said. “When Equitrack was at its best, there was no finer racing surface in the country. All indications seem to be that is also the case with Polytrack.”

Even before Equitrack, two Florida tracks, Calder and Tropical, tried another surface, known as Tartan. Tropical closed, while Calder replaced Tartan with dirt.

Some tracks are looking at wood chips for their practice courses, but Polytrack currently seems to be the only serious competitor to dirt on the racing oval.

Patrick Biancone, a Frenchman who trains horses all over the world, says he has never found a better surface than Polytrack, which is why he stables several horses at Turfway. Biancone has been a major advocate for the surface, and he says the injury to Barbaro only solidifies his feelings.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “Enough jockeys injured. Enough horses killed. It doesn’t mean it’ll never happen again, but at least we should do something so there’s less chance that it will happen.”

AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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AP-ES-05-25-06 1609EDT