Del Mar president sounds off about Polytrack

Joe Harper, president of Del Mar, was asked by this reporter Wednesday during his annual state of the meet briefing with reporters in the press box how he rated Polytrack’s performance in 2009:

“I personally think the Polytrack performed well,” he said. “I think it was a little different than what we had experienced the first year, the second year and (now) the third year. I think we made some good adjustments with the new equipment and got a handle on it. Obviously, that first week was a tough one, but I think Steve (track superintendent Steve Wood) was doing the right things and I think next year what we’ve got to do is obviously see what we’ve got and what we’re dealing with before we decide to change things or do something different.”

There were 12 fatalities over the synthetic Polytrack surface this year — 8 in the mornings and four during afternoon racing. There were eight fatalities during the first year of Polytrack and six last year. In 2006, the year before Polytrack was installed, 18 horses had to be euthanized after breaking down on Del Mar’s dirt track, partly spawning the CHRB’s mandate on synthetics.

Harper talked about the increase in breakdowns further.

“One of the things we’re going to do is have a lot of meetings with the trainers to talk about it and to say what we’ve learned,” he said. “The one thing like dirt this track seems to be is that it changes. All of our dirt tracks changed, all dirt tracks change. The sand dissipates, and they’re just different. We want to make sure that what we’ve got out there has all the right percentages in it. Has the fiber lessened over the three years that we’ve had it? Has the wax content changed? Has the rubber gone where erasers go? Those little chunks of rubber, you got horses running on it, it seems natural to me that they’d be worn down. So all those things we have to do some testing with and see what we’ve got before we decide what exactly to do.

“The ultimate goal here is to make it as forgiving a race track as we can. We all know what we’re dealing with in horses. Charlie Whittingham said they’re like strawberries, and if we can make that track as forgiving as possible, then we’ll be happier.”

Harper said his confidence in the artificial tracks has not wavered.

“You talk to a lot of these horsemen, and those of us with long memories don’t want to go back to dirt,” he said. “That comment has come out from some very large trainers. I mean, trainers with a number of pretty good-sized stables back there. There’s trainers who had no problem whatsoever with this track, there’s trainers that hate it, and some hate it just because it’s Polytrack, but they’re doing well on it.”

Interesting stuff. Now, I don’t expect Harper to say he suddenly has major reservations about Polytrack, not after Del Mar’s spent around $10 million on the track so far. But I find it difficult to believe that Del Mar management is as sold on the stuff as it was before the 2007 season began.

17 thoughts on “Del Mar president sounds off about Polytrack

  1. I think that Juan makes a very valid point. What is the reason that there were over ten fatalities on the Del Mar synthetic track and only one at Saratoga? Of course, it can be argued that there are fewer fatalities on the California synthetic tracks than before the mandate. But the key question is what are the differences between the New York tracks and the So Cal tracks that would cause such a disparity in fatalities? Is it track composition, maintenance, emphasis on speed? Whatever the reasons, it would greatly improve racing in California if changes could be made so drastically reduce fatalities.

  2. Actually, Saratoga had five fatalities this year. Three during afternoon races, all on the turf track. One during morning training on the main dirt track. And one in a freak accident (flipped in paddock).
    I think in the long-term picture, synthetic surfaces can be a good thing. But I think those who manufacture them still need to study them and learn much more about them in order to make them play the same as dirt tracks, and to make sure the surface won’t be adversely affected by weather. And I think California jumped the gun by installing synth at ALL of its tracks instead of easing in and studying the issue more.

  3. I’m not in the know about dirt or synthetic tracks. But why can’t they install new dirt tracks with the drainage used for the synthetic tracks?

  4. Bill, new bases, which were badly needed, were installed at all three SoCal tracks before the synthetics were installed. Many horsemen believe the new bases, coupled with a quality dirt track, would have sufficed. Del Mar, with its different climate, might need something more.

  5. One reason for the difference in catastrophic injuries between Saratoga and Del Mar is the fact that Saratoga has a training track and Del Mar doesn’t. The training track takes a lot of pressure off the main track. Del Mar’s track is overused because there is no training track. All tracks, dirt and synthetic alike, are adversely affected by overuse. But Saratoga’s track is affected much less than Del Mar’s.

  6. Why can’t California simply admit it made a mistaki in mandating the plastic tracks, get back to the real thing, to wit: dirt surfaces and get on with the business of real horse racing. At this point California racing holds absolutely no interest for me. The same can be said for Keeneland and I live in Midway KY, about 10 minutes from Kenneland. Prior to the installation of the Polytrack surface there, I went almost daily. The last time I was at Keenland for a live card was three years ago. And I relfect the action of many of my friends. The powerbrokers here at Keeneland seem bound and determined to undermine racing both at the track and in the legislature where they have blown another chance to get slots at the tracks by their “do it my way” attitudes.

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