The racegoers acted exactly like racegoers everywhere. They were oblivious to the track surface during each dash; they jiggled and yelled and watched the action. Inexperienced as many of them were in the matter of pari-mutuel betting, which was being introduced in the Pittsburgh area for the first time, they wagered the reasonably healthy sum of $181,134. If the people liked The Meadows, the horsemen loved it. "I just wish," said George Sholty, the superb young driver, "that I could gather up this surface and take it with me wherever I race."
What is this revolutionary stuff? Where did it come from?
It was once merely the dream of a Thoroughbred trainer, Johnny Nerud, the saddler of the 1957 Belmont winner, Gallant Man. Nerud was appalled by the number of breakdowns among 2-year-old horses on existing tracks, which he estimated at 50% of each year's expensive crop. He badgered William L. McKnight, board chairman of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company and owner of the Tartan Stable, which Nerud trains, to find something better. McKnight badgered his research staff. The solution eluded his brightest Ph.Ds. But a half-educated ex-farmboy working in the 3M labs brewed the soup that worked. "Ted Buchholtz," says one of his associates, "is not a chemist. He is just a good cook." Buchholtz' liquid mixture, the ingredients of which are a company secret, jelled in a few minutes, becoming both tough and resilient; 3M named it Tartan.
Three years ago Nerud laid a walking ring of the stuff outside his barn at New York's Belmont Park. Horses could not seem to wear it out. Nor could cars wear out a Tartan parking-lot strip at 3M offices in St. Paul. Nor could spike-shoed batters damage the Tartan on-deck circles at the Twins' baseball park.
When Del Miller heard about it he thought it would be perfect for a trotting track. He headed a group of Washington County, Pa. businessmen who were to back The Meadows. Miller wanted a practical test of the synthetic. Last. July, 3M poured a 20-foot-wide strip on the private half-mile training track of Horseman Max Hempt at Mechanicsburg, Pa. Leading drivers worked trotters on it and agreed with Miller that it was practical.
Hempt, an amateur driver, and Trainer Marvin Parshall exercised 15 racehorses on the strip all winter long. "It was the coldest winter I can remember," Hempt says, "but we only lost one day of training, and that was because it was too cold for the men, not the horses. There was no frost heave in the track. When it iced up we just scraped the ice away and kept training."
Hempt and Miller agreed, however, that the trial strip was a touch too hard. So 3M brewed a batch of Tartan with 25% more resiliency for The Meadows. Buchholtz describes Tartan as a "synthetic resin" of great durability, which has resilience but, significantly, does not have the instantaneous rebound, or "fight-back," as he puts it, of rubberlike products. "There is a delayed reaction when a horse's hoof strikes it," he says. "This means that it does not immediately spring back and throw the horse off stride. Best of all, a horse doesn't bottom on it. It forms a uniform cushion all the way around."
Thin but tough
The surface at The Meadows was laid in 10-foot-wide strips over two inches of asphalt resting upon a foot-deep base of crushed rock. The Tartan is an inch deep on the inner 20 feet, where racing wear and tear are greatest, diminishing to half an inch on the outer 20. Small granules of Tartan are worked into the top surface as additional shock absorbers. Buchholtz foresees the need of only an occasional light, inexpensive spray coating of Tartan on the inside 20 feet in years to come.
"If I had built a dirt track," says Miller, "I would have needed $100,000 worth of maintenance equipment. All I've had to buy is one little $8,000 sweeper to clean up the manure dropped by the horses. The biggest saving of all is in the horses themselves. Mud pulls horses apart. They float over this stuff. Some people say they have wet-weather tracks. What that means is they scrape off what little cushion there is when it rains and let the horses go on a track as hard as pavement."