A pretty little harness racing track called The Meadows opened last week in western Pennsylvania, and in that small beginning is the promise of great, beneficial changes in horse racing everywhere. The track is the first in the world to be surfaced not with earth or sand or turf but with a hoof-pampering synthetic carpet. Horsemen praised it lavishly, and visiting track operators expressed lively interest. The president of a rich New York raceway declared on the spot, "If it is as good as it looks, I want it."
He wants The Meadows' magic carpet because:
1) It is impervious to rain and frost and thus removes most of the misery and danger to horse and driver from bad-weather racing.
2) It reduces the risk of horses going lame, in any weather.
3) It should slash the very high cost of track maintenance to a paltry few thousand dollars a year.
4) With off tracks eliminated, bettors could anticipate truer form and in the long run might increase their wagers.
5) Del Miller, president of The Meadows, was the man who chose to install it. Trainer, driver and breeder extraordinary, Miller is harness racing's outstanding individual. When Miller acts, harness people pay strict and respectful attention.
The synthetic's substantia] price—the 5/8-mile, 80-foot-wide Pennsylvania strip cost $750,000—will keep it from sweeping the country overnight. All interested tracks will first study the full 50-night meeting at The Meadows to be certain that the surface is indeed all that it appears to be. The larger tracks, those most able to afford it, and smaller ones that spend heavily to cope with rain and freeze-ups, should be the next customers. The harness tracks will be first. Major Thoroughbred officials will have to be convinced that the surface is acceptable to trainers, jockeys and horse owners. Executives of the flat tracks will particularly study a series of Thoroughbred exhibition races to be run this summer at The Meadows. Combination tracks, where harness and flat racing alternate (e.g., Chicago's Washington Park, California's Santa Anita Park), must determine whether one synthetic strip suits both trotters and running horses.
Apart from these understandable reservations, the most serious question raised about the surface is that it would eliminate a traditional "sporting" quality of dirt-track racing. Good horses, the argument goes, should race under varying conditions. Fans who have gone out to cheer a favorite only to find him scratched because of muddy footing may be inclined to snicker at this reasoning. Harness reinsmen and jockeys who are mud-splattered on wet tracks and clobbered with clods of dirt on dry ones, and who must risk serious injury when the footing is tricky, will laugh out loud.
What the 7,461 opening night spectators at The Meadows saw, first of all, was a tan racing surface that looked very much like an ordinary dirt track—except for lighter patches here and there that will soon be sunburned to the basic color. There had been a drenching midday rain. Horsemen agreed that a typical dirt-and-sand racing surface would have been slimy and treacherous that evening. The synthetic surface, however, was safe and spectacularly fast; all but two of the nine race winners trotted or paced the fastest mile of their careers.