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.