Artificial Surfaces Gaining Momentum With Horse Trainers

Tuesday, May 1st 2007, 7:37 am

By: News On 6

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ Change doesn't come easily at the home of the Kentucky Derby, a place that likes to think time has stood still on the first Saturday in May for the last 132 years.

The hats at Churchill Downs on Derby Day remain as big as ever. Mint juleps in collectible Derby glasses are still consumed in mass quantities. The horses remain the stars of the show.

But things are evolving.

The Twin Spires are now flanked by luxury suites. Corporate advertising is plastered on everything from the starting gate to the tote boards. Now sentiment is growing for the pristine dirt that creates thunder as the horses race past the grandstand to one day give way to a synthetic surface designed to protect thoroughbreds and jockeys alike.

Several tracks across the country _ including Keeneland in nearby Lexington _ have switched to artificial surfaces in recent years. A mix of wax-coated sand, synthetic fibers and recycled rubber, Polytrack is the brand name of one of several synthetic surfaces that are gaining a reputation for their consistency and safety.

``It takes out all the guesswork,'' said trainer Michael Matz, who kept 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro at Keeneland until a few days before last year's race. ``You never have to worry about whether it's going to rain or whether I'm going to miss my work. Nobody likes to go out and ride in the rain, but even if it's raining you have to get it done and you can get it done.''

Steve Asmussen, who trains Derby horses Curlin and Zanjero, agreed, saying artificial surfaces mean ``you don't have to have The Weather Channel on.''

Matz doesn't claim that switching from dirt to synthetic surfaces will prevent breakdowns like the one Barbaro suffered at the Preakness Stakes last year.

``There's still injuries that happen on the track, they're always going to be part of the sport,'' he said. ``But the more you can minimalize it, I think (artificial) is the only way you can go.''

During a recent rainy day at Keeneland, the track was busy with several Derby hopefuls working in the gloom while Churchill Downs remained mostly quiet.

Trainer Todd Pletcher _ who has a record-tying five horses in Saturday's Derby _ was keeping four of them at Keeneland until Tuesday so they could work out on Polytrack. Doug O'Neill, who has three Derby horses, worked them at Keeneland before coming to Louisville on Sunday.

And while Hard Spun's trainer Larry Jones made sure his colt felt fine running on Churchill's dirt before deciding to enter him in the Derby, he immediately returned his horse to Keeneland following a workout two weeks ago.

``He's just comfortable there,'' Jones said.

Hard Spun isn't the only one. The early returns for tracks who run on synthetic surfaces are promising.

Fatal breakdowns have dropped dramatically at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., in the two years since Polytrack was installed, while Keeneland didn't have any breakdowns during its recently completed spring meet.

Yet there's a difference between switching surfaces at Keeneland and switching surfaces at Churchill Downs. Changing surfaces at Churchill Downs would mean having to throw out the record books _ something that's not done easily at the home of the oldest continuous sporting event in the country, where records are nearly as sacred as the horses who break them.

``I don't think it's a history question,'' said Steve Sexton, vice president of Churchill Downs Inc. ``Safety is still No. 1 and we're confident our surface is one of the safest, if not the safest in the country.''

Sexton said it's still too early to know the potential long-term benefits of synthetic surfaces. Turfway Park's surface had glitches during its winter/spring meet because of extreme cold weather. Keeneland has tinkered with its mixture in an effort to help it better adapt to dramatic temperature changes.

``It's an unrefined science,'' Sexton said. ``Hopefully it's going to be a safer surface in the long run. A lot of it is going to depend on trainers and the way they want to train their horses.''

Trainer Carl Nafzger, whose 3-year-old colt Street Sense is among the early favorites for Saturday's Derby, said the true test will come after the initial wave of interest wears off.

``It's like everybody has a new car and they all get excited,'' said Nafzger, who trained 1990 Derby winner Unbridled. ``Let's see what happens.''

Yet as trainers become more comfortable with the surface, they're becoming less concerned about horses who do well on synthetics gaining a track bias and affecting the way they run on dirt.

O'Neill is based at Hollywood Park, which has California's first synthetic surface. Last October, he trained Thor's Echo and Great Hunter at Keeneland. Thor's Echo went on to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint on Churchill Downs' dirt, while Great Hunter ran third in the BC Juvenile.

``The success of Thor's Echo gave us confidence that we could train here, use this (Keeneland) as our major final prep facility,'' O'Neill said. ``Our knowledge of the synthetic tracks is that they're kinder on the horses. It worked last year; hopefully, we'll have some success this year.''

While any change at Churchill Downs is uncertain, track officials are at least thinking about it. Arlington Park outside of Chicago, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., is switching to a synthetic surface this spring. Three other California tracks _ Del Mar, Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields _ also are abandoning dirt. The 2008 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita will be the biggest racing event held on a synthetic track.

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