Sports Nut

Horse Racing’s Plastic Surgery

How a synthetic track surface will change the Sport of Kings forever.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Click image to expand.

Hard Spun’s victory in last month’s Lane’s End Stakes was one of the most impressive performances by a Thoroughbred this spring. On the backstretch, the colt ran so smoothly that jockey Mario Pino had to stand up in the irons to hold him back. When Pino finally leaned forward, Hard Spun swooped around the field and cantered down the stretch to win by three lengths. He looked like nothing less than a Kentucky Derby winner.

It’s strange to hear, then, that Hard Spun almost spurned Churchill Downs. The Derby, you see, is run on clay-rich Southern dirt. The Lane’s End? It was run on plastic. Yes, plastic. Turfway Park, the site of the Lane’s End Stakes, was the first racecourse in North America to install Polytrack, a synthetic racing surface composed of polypropylene fibers, rubber, and silica sand, all beneath a wax coating. While Hard Spun looked like a worldbeater on the artificial Polytrack, he ran without distinction on Oaklawn’s dirt surface back in February. A spokeswoman for the Kentucky barn where Hard Spun trains told me that “we can’t help but wonder if he’ll like the Churchill surface since he showed a dislike for the Oaklawn surface.” An anxious trainer, Larry Jones put Hard Spun through a tough workout at Churchill Downs before committing his colt to the race.

Polytrack was designed to cut down on bone-snapping injuries, like the one that ultimately cost Barbaro his life. So far, it’s doing that: In 2005-06, Turfway’s first Polytrack season, there were three fatal breakdowns, compared with 24 the year before. But as Hard Spun shows, it has also created a parallel racing universe that will change the way races are run, alter the breeding industry, and make reams of old handicapping information useless.

For one thing, Polytrack affects a horse’s gait. Unlike dirt, the plastic stuff has no kickback, giving it a solid footing similar to grass. Turf horses thrive on the new surface, and Polytrack races often resemble turf races: The horses jog in slow motion until the final turn, when they unleash their finishing kicks.

Earlier this year, I watched a Polytrack race and a dirt race side by side at a Las Vegas sports book. They looked like they had been beamed from different planets. At Aqueduct, a Queens, N.Y., racetrack that has so far refused to go plastic, the deep brown dirt was scored with long hoof divots. The Turfway surface, by contrast, looked as sterile as sawdust. On the dirt, freewheeling frontrunners could not be caught in the stretch. Turfway’s plasticized races were still up for grabs an eighth of a mile from the wire. Dirt races are won with speed from the gate; Polytrack seems to reward stamina.

The huge differences between the surfaces can make it tough for horses to switch. Circular Quay, for example, was a huge favorite in last October’s Futurity at Keeneland—a Polytrack event—based on his performances on dirt. But jockey Garrett Gomez said his horse “never seemed to be comfortable” on the plastic. Back on dirt at the Breeders Cup, Circular Quay finished an impressive second and is now a top Derby contender.

So far, Polytrack’s biggest critic is Washington Post columnist Andrew Beyer. Maybe Beyer is worried about his legacy as the high priest of American handicapping, or maybe he’s just an unsentimental old railbird, but he complains that Polytrack will rob the game of its “subtleties,” making it as predictable as harness racing: “Though the practicality and safety of synthetic surfaces may make them irresistible, a sport filled with Polytrack sounds boringly homogenized.”

Beyer is best known as the inventor of the Beyer Speed Figure, a tool for comparing races run under varying track conditions. Horseplayers are debating whether speed figures will work on Polytrack, which is designed to sieve rain and perform the same in all weather. A traditional dirt track is banked for drainage, so water collects at the rail and may slow down the horses who run there. Racetrack regulars like Beyer make good money spotting horses hampered by such track biases and betting them the next time they race. Polytrack, which is supposed to run the same every time, could kill that angle.

It’s not far-fetched to think that, someday soon, synthetic tracks will be as universal as night baseball. The reduction of the injury rate at Turfway has hastened Polytrack’s deployment across the racing map—Woodbine and Keeneland installed it last summer, Arlington will debut its new surface next month, and all California tracks must have it in place by next year. Fusty old Churchill and Saratoga will probably be the last, Wrigley-like hold outs, but even they’ll give in to insistent trainers who see how plastic extends, or even saves, the racing lives of their animals.

As more tracks lay down the plastic, the equine death toll will continue to decrease. Horse racing is going to be a kinder sport—parents won’t have to worry so much about their children seeing sickening, leg-dangling breakdowns. It’s also going to be a fairer sport, with the elimination of track biases. (The 2006 Breeders’ Cup was a farce, with horses breaking from the inside post winning four of the five races on Churchill’s souped-up rail.)

My greatest hope is that the gentler surface, and a new emphasis on breeding for stamina, will produce the durable champion the sport so badly needs—a Kelso, a Citation, or a Cigar who can maintain his dominance over several seasons. But we’re not there yet. The biggest, richest races are still run on old-fashioned dirt. On Derby Day, I’ll be betting on horses with mud in their hooves. Hard Spun is a plastic champion, and that’s not going to earn him this May’s blanket of roses.