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William Nack
October 24, 1988
Horses kick up their heels on this high-tech track
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October 24, 1988

It's Stronger Than Dirt

Horses kick up their heels on this high-tech track

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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 4� 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 2�. "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 5� 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.

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